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Ashes to Ashtrays

As they disappear from Daily Life, ashtrays have Become Smoking Collectibles
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

Like Poe's renowned purloined letter, ashtrays long were hidden in plain view. Having been overlooked when they were out in the open, ashtrays today are getting noticed as they start to disappear. Curbs on public smoking have rendered them less necessary, and advertisers, retailers and the service industry no longer rely on them for promotions. As demand for ashtrays has declined, manufacturers have scaled back production or stopped making them altogether.

Of course, ashtrays have been disappearing from fancy hotels, cocktail lounges and restaurants for a long time for precisely the same reason that hobbyists now are pursuing them: they are enjoyable reminders of favorite haunts and old-world conviviality. Have you ever pocketed one from an upscale restaurant or a first-class hotel and added it to your collection of knickknacks? If so, welcome to a club that, over the years, has had some mighty famous members, such as Marlene Dietrich.

In November 1997, five years after Dietrich's death at 90, Sotheby's Beverly Hills branch auctioned the contents of the actress's Manhattan co-op. Among her possessions were 23 ashtrays, many taken from hotels and restaurants she had frequented: the legendary Maxim's in Paris, the Villa Medici in Rome, the Restaurante Los Caracoles in Barcelona, and others. Although some of the ashtrays were chipped, and the whole lot was estimated to be worth just $200 to $250, they ultimately fetched $3,220. Another lot of four "miscellaneous" glass ashtrays of Dietrich's, with an estimated value of $75 to $100, was sold for $517--admittedly a small portion of the $659,024 garnered at the auction, yet representative of the allure, not only of anything owned by a celebrity, but of ashtrays themselves.

When George Burns's estate was auctioned in October 1996, the results were the same: the ashtrays sold for far more than anticipated. Two cigar ashtrays--one gold-painted plaster, the other glass--were collectively valued at $350 to $450, but fetched $1,380; even four chipped and cracked glass ashtrays, valued at $150 to $250 but bearing the distinction of having had Burns himself flick cigar ashes into them, sold for $373, despite their defects.

As a collectibles subcategory, however, celebrity ashtrays are a small specialty in a field of bewildering diversity. Ashtrays are nineteenth- and twentieth-century artifacts that were produced in an encyclopedic range of materials and styles. Whatever technology was available, it was most likely used to manufacture ashtrays. Often the finest manufacturers of elegant accessories had in their lines at least one exquistely crafted ashtray. As they slowly recede from our daily lives (many of Detroit's automakers stopped including them as part of a car's standard equipment in 1995), ashtrays are surfacing in museum cases and private collectors' caches. Even the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City has begun assembling a small, representative collection. Deborah Shinn, curator of applied arts at Cooper-Hewitt, told The New York Times: "It seems they are becoming relics of the twentieth century and may not live on into the twenty-first."

Such observations merely stoke the fires of budding collectors' zeal. Bob Strong, owner of Rescued Estates, an antiques and collectibles store in New York City, told The Wall Street Journal: "It's just like the stock market--as soon as collectors even sniff something won't be available or is in the news, they jump."

Sales of all sorts of old tobacco paraphernalia are picking up. Tony Hyman, author of Handbook of Cigar Boxes, The World of Smoking and Tobacco, and other books on collectibles, believes that the number of ashtray collectors appears to be growing rapidly, judging by the voluminous response he received when he advertised in The Ashtray Journal, a now-defunct periodical. Although the supply of ashtrays seems bottomless, Hyman writes, "once that was said about a lot of other things that you can't find any more."

The doyenne of ashtray collectors is Nancy Wanvig, 66, a Thiensville, Wisconsin-based antiques dealer and author of the Collector's Guide to Ashtrays: Identification & Values (Collector Books, 1997), the first full-color book devoted exclusively to ashtrays. It contains illustrations of more than 2,000 ashtrays in every conceivable variety, with price estimates for each.

Wanvig was bitten by the ashtray bug around 1992, when she went to the Milwaukee Antique Center to sell a sterling-silver cigarette case. Here she met the center's owner, Gary John Gresl, who casually mentioned that smoking accessories were poised to become extremely collectible. "That was all I needed to hear," Wanvig writes in the introduction to her book. "I decided that ashtrays were my new collectible, and I soon learned about 'the thrill of the hunt.' I thought they were the perfect collectible because they were cheap and plentiful. Also, they would increase in value over time."

What Wanvig discovered on her quest to become the ashtray queen was that while most antiques dealers and flea market entrepreneurs sold ashtrays, little was known about the ashtrays or their manufacturers. So she spent nearly two years in the Milwaukee Public Library, learning all she could about pottery companies, glassmakers, metalsmiths, advertising companies and retailers. She also immersed herself in the history of smoking.

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