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Going, Going, Gone!

Before Auction Fever Sweeps You Away, Make Sure You Know What You're Buying
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 3)

In the early '90s, hardly anyone outside a tiny circle of British connoisseurs knew that cigar auctions existed. Every now and then, Christie's of London would auction a few boxes of Cuban cigars; they would sell for roughly their retail value. Bowker remembers when fewer than 10 people regularly bid on the odd box of Havanas. Now, more than 100 routinely vie for cigars.

Christie's remains the epicenter of the market. While Sotheby's in London holds the occasional auction, Christie's is the only commercial house that holds regular sales. (Charity auctions are also booming, but they're a different animal--bidders tend to spend far more than market value.) Although Christie's sales vary widely, an auction held June 23 was typical. On the block were 10 boxes of Cuban cigars made in the '90s, including two boxes of Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas (£300/US $495 and £270/$445), Bolivar Belicoso Finos (£185/$305), and Punch Punch (£155/$256), to name some highlights. On June 5, the sale with the 1492s, Christie's also auctioned a special numbered humidor made to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Partagas. Filled with 150 Cuban Partagas cigars, it was snatched up for £18,000 ($29,678, or $198 a smoke).

It's these lots of limited-edition cigars--along with pre-embargo Havanas (those shipped from Cuba before the U.S. embargo was imposed in February 1962)--that fetch the highest prices. Pre-embargo coronas generally sell for anywhere from £1,000 to £1,500 ($1,647 to $2,470) per box, and big cigars can go for nearly twice that much. Last year, a box of Montecristo No. 2s, Cuba's benchmark torpedo, sold for £2,600 ($4,281).

The short-lived Trinidad record shattered one held for about six months by a cabinet of 163 Havanas that weren't just pre-embargo--they were pre-Castro, pre-Batista, even pre-Abe Lincoln. Made in the 1850s, the cigars sold for £17,600 ($29,400, or $180 per smoke) at a Christie's auction last December.

The collector appeal of these rare smokes is obvious, but why buy modern, run-of-the-mill Cuban cigars at auction? Box age is one reason; availability is another. Often, cigars with anywhere from one to 20 years of flavor-enhancing age are auctioned for prices only slightly higher than current retail. Havanas on the world's retail shelves--when you can find them--are no more than six months old.

As for authenticity, Christie's has each box examined by experts, and the seller is required to provide documentation of provenance. Most cigars are available for viewing before the sale. Christie's has been approached several times over the past few months by people trying to auction counterfeit Cuban cigars, according to David Ellswood, an executive with Christie's wine department, which organizes the cigar sales.

"It's such a small market for us," Ellswood says. "Unless we can sell only the finest cigars with absolutely cast-iron provenance, we're not really interested."

--Brendan Vaughan

Brendan Vaughan is the assistant editor of Marvin Shanken's Cigar Insider newsletter and manager of online services for Cigar Aficionado Online.

Christie's in South Kensington, London (44-171-581-7611), holds monthly cigar auctions. Its King Street location (44-171-389-2720) holds less frequent sales.

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