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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

(continued from page 3)

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.

Soon she created a computerized database to compile the prices asked--and paid--for old ashtrays. During her cross-country search, she paid as little as 35 cents for Depression-era glass ashtrays or fairly recent glass ashtrays from obscure overseas hotels or Las Vegas venues, and as much as $250 for a beautiful Lalique-style item. In the course of her roaming, she sometimes found the same ashtray listed for $4 in one antiques mall and $25 in a mall elsewhere. In a few instances, she came up with 150 different prices for the same ashtray.

In Wanvig's book, the prices listed represent the average for each ashtray, once she eliminated unconscionably high or abnormally low prices. In his review of her book, Tony Hyman judged Wanvig's pricing of the ashtrays consistent with his own experience, although he considers the prices for the "plain ones" a bit high.

Wanvig classifies ashtrays by the materials from which they are made: glass, metal, marble, ceramic, and so on; by the period in which they were produced: Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the 1950s, etc.; and by type, such as "functional" (those made, however beautifully, simply for the purpose of depositing an ash), "advertising" (for beverages, tires, hotels, restaurants, etc.), and "novelty," which she gamely notes has "unlimited" subject matter. These include ashtrays in the form of animals, shoes, hats, household fixtures--just about anything you can imagine (even bathtubs, toilets and bedpans).

Although some ashtrays, featuring mini-cigar holders and wide cigar rests, clearly were intended for use by cigar smokers, others were made only for cigarettes. The latter type may feature "snufferettes"--little holes into which a cigarette can be snuffed out--or cigarette-dispensing mechanisms. The majority of ashtrays, however, were designed to accommodate cigars, cigarettes or pipes.

Yet, ashtrays need not be made only by ashtray manufacturers. Many have been crafted by some of the most famous names in fine personal and household accessories. Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Spode, Hummel, Lalique, Steuben, Haviland, Rosenthal, Delft, Limoges, Staffordshire and Noritake have all produced ashtrays. Ashtrays have been created out of every sort of material, from precious metals such as sterling silver to brass, bronze, copper, chrome, aluminum, lead, enamel, pewter, glass, ceramic, porcelain, soapstone, chalkware, wood and plastic.

While Wanvig's book contains a few ashtrays that have commanded sums as high as $275 to $350, most of the prices listed in an updated edition that was due out in September are surprisingly modest, with many under $50. Ashtrays advertising beers are the most common, fetching $5 to $35. Ashtrays from some legendary, long-gone New York and Hollywood nightspots and eateries seem quite reasonable. A beige ceramic Stork Club item featuring blue lettering and a drawing of its trademark bird is priced at only $55. A glass Brown Derby and a ceramic Toots Shor are priced at $23 and $18, respectively. On a less rarified note, a 1930s glass ashtray for Howard Johnson Ice Cream Shops and Restaurants is $25.

The oldest ashtrays in Wanvig's collection date from the 1880s--about the time the word "ashtray" itself entered the lexicon. Her research indicates that the entry "ash pan" first appeared in an 1857 English dictionary and was defined as a small receptacle for tobacco ashes. Usually these ash pans were shaped like a cup and had no rests for cigars. Thirty years later, a subsequent edition of the same dictionary referred to an ash pan as an "ash-tray," and the word thus became part of our language.

Winston Churchill used just such an 1880s ashtray-- small, with no cigar rests--in London's underground War Rooms during the Battle of Britain.

Other sources suggest ashtrays existed long before the English word for them was commonly used. Chuck Thompson, a Houston collectibles expert and editor of the annual ashtray collectors' directory, Ashtray Collectors Connections, has a 1992 catalogue published by an antiques dealer in Brussels, Belgium, that features a photograph of an elegant silver ashtray, circa 1830, in the form of a stooped, gnome-like figure 6 1/2-inches high, with a match holder on his back. He is leaning on a cane, tipping his top hat (the brim of which serves as a cigarette or small cigar rest), and standing beside a round container for holding additional smokes. It was created by the French artist Travies and was valued in the catalogue at $1,400.

As ashtrays became more popular, they began to reflect the fashionable style of the day, be it the ornate, 1890s elegance of the Victorian era, the undulating lines of early 1900s Art Nouveau, or the brisk Art Deco of the 1920s and 1930s.

With the recent restrictions on smoking, however, demand for ashtrays has declined. Many companies that once made them switched to other products or went out of business. Consequently, "the interesting advertising and lovely ashtrays from the first half of the twentieth century are no longer being made," Wanvig writes. "This part of Americana belongs to the past."

In addition to the century-old ashtrays whose value can range from $100 to $300, expensive and collectible ashtrays are found in many categories. These include various high-quality glass ashtrays produced by Newark, Ohio-based Heisey and Co., Lalique, and various Venetian manufacturers; Art Deco ashtrays decorated with miniature nude figures; tire-company ashtrays; and colorful figural ashtrays featuring eye-catching small sculptures of such figures as comic strip characters, classic advertising icons, airplanes, trucks and railroad locomotives.

Another category that commands high prices is novelty ashtrays. Some of these whimsical ashtrays come in the shapes of odd or engaging animals or humans, with either nodding heads or strategically placed holes that let smoke emerge through their open mouths, ears or noses. Others have American Indian or American West motifs. Still others are porcelain ashtrays made in Japan between 1891 and 1921 that bear the marking "hand-painted in Nippon," the name the Japanese then used to identify their nation on products sold overseas.

There appears to be a growing demand for tire-company ashtrays made in the shape of miniature tires. "Tire ashtrays are a great collectible because they have been on the antiques market for some time," Wanvig writes. Jeff McVey, a collector who specializes in these ashtrays, says the "Hope Diamond of tire ashtrays" is an Overman Cushion Tire Co. specimen made of brass instead of rubber, with a she-devil figure on the inside, valued at more than $600.

Jeff Koenker, another tire-ashtray aficionado, says that around 1915, when automobile manufacturing accelerated, the first tire ashtrays (or TAs) were introduced. These first-run ashtrays were made of glass or a metal/glass combination. By the 1920s, they were made of rubber with glass or metal inserts. During the Second World War, demand for rubber led to the temporary cessation of TA production, and many ashtrays disappeared into scrap-rubber campaigns. After the war, tire ashtrays again blossomed along with the automotive industry. In the 1960s, plastic replaced rubber as the basic material.

Most of the tire ashtrays prized by Koenker and similar collectors can be had for $40 or less. He classifies these ashtrays in four price categories--under $10, those still made by tire companies; $10 to $40, which he says account for up to 80 percent of the tire ashtray market; $40 to $100, for prewar ashtrays with attractive Depression-era glass inserts, clocks in the center, and advertisements; and over $100, pre-1920s tire ashtrays that rarely come up for sale.

Koenker has developed a Web site to extol the virtues of tire ashtrays and to lament that while some major tire companies still make what they now call "ad" trays, rather than ashtrays, their manufacture is on the wane.

Wanvig now estimates that she has a collection of about 5,000 ashtrays (and counting). But one variety not contained in her hoard are the tall, free-standing ashtrays that once were found beside chairs in homes and offices across America. "My husband, Tom, simply refused to let me collect them," Wanvig explains with a chuckle. "They're too big."

This restriction on her passion is a source of frustration for her, as free-standing ashtrays often sell in the $20 to $60 range. "They're very appealing," she says a bit wistfully.

One aficionado with no such constraints is William H. Parsons, a retired corporate financial officer from Yarrow Point, Washington, a Seattle suburb. A cigar enthusiast for decades (with a preference for Montecristos, Macanudos, Punch "and any Cubans I can get a hold of to smoke when I'm overseas"), he was browsing through a Napa Valley, California, antiques store in 1997 when he stumbled upon a free-standing ashtray. The discovery inspired him.

"I came across an old, pitted and not-so-great-looking standing ashtray and was reminded of my late father's swivel-top standing ashtray," recalls the 67-year-old Parsons. "I thought of all the other standing ashtrays I used to see in my early years, and I wondered what had happened to them. I thought that there must be quite a number of old, unique standing ashtrays in antiques stores and attics that could be restored and sold to cigar aficionados and cigar lounges." And so Parson's quest began.

On searches through antiques stores in the older seaport towns of Washington State, California and New England, he has found more than 28 "one-of-a-kind" standing ashtrays, mostly plated with brass, nickel or chrome. He spends up to a month dismantling, repairing, resurfacing and reassembling each one, pricing them from $280 to $950; the costliest so far is an Art-Deco-style chrome-and-powder-coat-painted "Club Car Special" from the old Pennsylvania Railroad.

Parsons notes that ashtray stands come in various heights and designs. Some with "swinging shafts" appear to have been made for use on boats. Others were designed to accompany certain furniture styles. Then there were those designed in a "feminine style, made with the ladies in mind. The amazing thing is, I haven't found two alike," Parsons notes. He is setting up a Web page to tout his wares.

Until the Museum of Tobacco Art and History in Nashville closed last year, its curator, David R. Wright, had been looking for top-quality free-standing ashtrays for years but had found them hard to come by. "Occasionally you'd see them for $75 or $100, if you were lucky, but the condition was not that nice," Wright says. "They were made up to the 1950s. They came in brass, bronze, cast iron, stainless steel or nickel, with a free-standing ashtray in the center."

Often such ashtrays featured a place for a box of matches, a humidor for cigars or cigarettes on the side, a loose ash receptacle made of glass, and sometimes an electric heating coil used to light a smoke. "Those were really popular in the 1920s and 1930s," Wright says, "but they've become difficult to find."

According to Wright, the museum had other types of ashtrays, mostly from nineteenth-century "companion sets" made for placement on desks or tables. These featured a ceramic or lead-glass jar or other compartment to hold cigars or cigarettes, a match holder, a match striker, sometimes a cigar cutter, and an ashtray.


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