Setting the Market for Aged Smokes

Posted February 28, 2000, 6:30 p.m. e.s.t.

Serious cigar auctions are here to stay. Not only are they great sources for buying and selling cigars, the auctions highlight the importance of aging and storing cigars properly.

This became all the more evident while skimming through the catalogue for Christie's March 9 sale of vintage cigars in London. More than 460 lots of cigars are on the block, ranging from small Montecristo Petit Coronas (4 inches by 42 ring gauge) to mammoth Dunhill Havana Clubs (9 1/4" by 47). Perhaps best of all, a variety of ages are available, from pre-embargo cigars (meaning they were manufactured before the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba was imposed in 1963) to those with three or four years of box age. With the exception of a few lots, the sale is all Cuban tobacco, and some very nice humidors and cigar antiques are up for grab as well.

This auction is the first-ever cigar-only sale for Christie's. In the past, the auction house included cigars as a sideline to wine auctions. Its main competitor, Sotheby's, had a cigar sale or two a few years ago, but it canceled cigar auctions after its American shareholders became worried about the political ramifications of selling Cuban products.

From a cigar industry perspective, the Christie's sales are setting a market value for aged and rare cigars, similar to what auction houses do for wine, antiques, art and other collectibles. The old cigars you have laying around in your humidor may be worth a lot more than you ever thought.

As long as they have a few years of box age, even the most common cigars at the Christie's auction are being offered at more than their current retail price in London. For example, Partagas Serie D No. 4s from 1993 are on offer for between $495 and $660 per box in the sale, but the same cigars of the most recent vintage can be found next door to Christie's in the Davidoff shop for $400. A box of Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas from 1995 is estimated at between $825 and $1155, but Davidoff sells today's Hoyo DCs for $615.

These prices are not nonsense. The difference between an aged Cuban cigar and a newer one is enormous. Like fine Bordeaux or Burgundy, a Cuban cigar loses some of its youthful, rough edges as it matures in its box. I generally find that Cuban cigars with a minimum of three or four years of box age begin to mellow and show more refined character than those fresh out of the box. In most cases, seven to ten years of age is even better.

Age on cigars is one of the main reasons that some of the highest prices in Christie's cigar auctions are for such smokes as Davidoff and Dunhill cigars. For instance, the Churchill-sized Davidoff Dom Perignons are on offer for about $7,425 to $9,900 a box, while the robustos from Dunhill, called Cabinettas, are going for $4,290 to $5,775. Of course, the stellar prices paid are also due to the cigars' rarity, since the Cubans stopped making these two brands about 10 years ago. In other words, when all the Davidoffs and Dunhills turn to ash, no more will be left. Just like the 1959 Lafite-Rothschild or 1961 Chateau Latour, two incredible and rare wines, a limited amount of such cigar gems exists in the world. Sadly, when they are all consumed we will have nothing left of them except for empty bottles and broken cigar bands.

Similar to wine, cigars have their limitations with aging. The fact that prices for pre-Castro, pre-embargo and other older cigars are very soft at the moment suggests that savvy cigar aficionados are beginning to understand that very old smokes have seen better days. I have had the few exceptional old smokes -- cigars with 40, 50 or even 60 years of age that tasted wonderful -- but most cigars that old have dried out. Of course, $40 a stick for a cabinet of 50 H. Upmann Dunhill Seleccion Suprema No. 50s from the 1950s may sound like a lot, but it's about half of what they were going for a few years ago. Henry Clay Supremos No. 5s (5 1/2" by 40) from the same period are also $40 a cigar. I have seen them sell for three or four times that price over the last five years.

Of course, what I have just written could all change on March 9. Auctions can be volatile and it takes only two bidders against to send prices soaring. Conversely, some cigars might go unsold if no one is interested. One thing is for sure: the Christie's auction room will see active bidding. There will also be plenty of bids by fax, e-mail or telephone from everywhere from Chicago to Hong Kong. What's it all mean? It means that there's a strong global demand for the rarest cigars on earth, which are getting rarer as buyers keep smoking them.

For information on the sale, contact Christie's in London at 011-44-171-389-2720. To bid on the sale, call 011-44-171-389-2740.

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