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Signs of the Times

Throwaway cigar ads from long ago have become hot collector's items
Michael Moretti
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

Cleaning out the family attic, you bump into an old picture stashed in a dark corner. Wipe away the dust and Davy Crockett emerges from beneath the grime, charging against a crisp blue sky with his rifle in hand. Smoke trails from the cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth. He's wearing a fox pelt cap, a buckskin coat and a tiny red scarf that peeks out from his neck. His face, not grizzled and soiled like a soldier's, is smiling and clean-shaven like a dandy's. Your curiosity is piqued.

Brush away more of the dust around the oval-framed image and you can make out some writing: "Smoke Davy Crockett—Best 5 Cent Cigar." Underneath is the famous Crockett motto: "Be sure you're right. Then go ahead."

Is it propaganda?

An advertisement? Could it be art? Maybe it is all of the above—and worth more than you think.

"Cigar signs are like fine art that you would hang on the wall and enjoy like a Rembrandt," says Michael Eckles of Showtime Auction Services, who has been auctioning vintage cigar signs and other vintage advertising art and casino paraphernalia for 10 years. "Many prominent people are paying top dollar for rare and unusual cigar signs." The Davy Crockett piece is among the best—the 1906 ad sold for $33,000 at an auction in April, a record for Eckles.

Like a spoon found on the dusty floor of an Egyptian pyramid, yesterday's trash has become today's treasure. Cigar advertising has soared in value in recent years, part of a trend that has seen advertising art in general come into its own. Advertising art from the 1800s to early 1900s, says Eckles, has more than quadrupled in value in the last 15 years alone.

Collectors have a growing appreciation for vintage cigar signs. Many have been sold, some for as little as $5 on Internet auction sites such as eBay or Yahoo Auctions, to collectors, retail shop owners or just plain cigar lovers looking to decorate their home smoking lounge.

Cigar signs fall into the collector's category called ephemera, everyday, throwaway items that were never intended to have value. In his article "Ephemera Collecting—A Growing Field, Hard to Define" (AB Bookman's Weekly, 1998), John Dann, the director of the University of Michigan's Clements Library and an admitted collector of ephemera himself, writes that ephemera "documents everyday life, particularly that of the average men and women in the past, perhaps more effectively than traditional collectibles."

The value of cigar ephemera is "definitely going up, and has been steadily," says John Grossman. An author, painter, graphic artist and now collector, Grossman has been a member of the Ephemera Society of America since 1981. He is also the owner of an archive with 250,000 museum-quality antique images.

Far more people smoked cigars in the late 1800s and early 1900s than they do today. In 1920, Americans smoked 8.5 billion cigars, according to the Cigar Association of America, or 250 for every man age 18 or older. There were blizzards of advertising materials made to attract that huge market, and many of those items now have considerable value today.

Reverse glass ads are relatively rare, adding to their value.

Most of those collectibles are cigar ads, or signs, which were generally printed on glass, pressed tin or paper, as in posters. (The art from cigar boxes is often erroneously lumped in the same category as cigar signs. Eckles stresses they are a totally different thing, with far less value—"like night and day in similarity.")

Mike Butler, a resident of Grass Valley, California, has been collecting pre-Prohibition whiskey, beer and tobacco ephemera since the mid-1970s. His prized cigar advertising art piece is a 16-inch ad for General Arthur Cigars, which he purchased for $1,000 some 20 years ago. The ad is done in reverse-glass style, wherein a design is painted on one side of a piece of glass while intended to be viewed from the other. It was his first piece of cigar art. "I have never seen another one," he says. "It's hard to tell what the value is today, but every time I see a reverse-glass piece of cigar art, I try to buy it because I know it's rare."

Proofs, the templates from which ads are printed, are also rare, and tend to be more valuable than the ads themselves. Grossman explains that a printer would make 1,000 or so signs from manufacturers' proofs, which were distributed to tobacconists. "They sent the signs out into the world, and after a while [the proofs] would keep getting thrown away and thrown away, getting rarer and rarer," he says.

In 1984, Grossman bought the proof to an Owl Cigar sign for $500. "It pictures an owl driving an antique car," he chuckles. Today, he estimates the sign's value to be at least a couple thousand dollars.

Like any collectible, age and rarity combine for the most valuable of items. The Crockett ad was produced, says Eckles, in 1906. Only four are known to exist, and only two are in excellent condition. One is the record setter. The other, acquired for $15,000 two decades ago, hangs in the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles.

There's more to the collecting game than simple nostalgia or the love of cigars. Experts say these advertisements were crafted by people of considerable talent. "Alcohol, tobacco and firearms [companies]," says Eckles, "were making tons of money in [the] 1800s and 1900s, and they were some of the few industries able to afford the best artists and lithographers of their time." As a result, people whose work might have appeared inside galleries, if they had been born a few decades earlier, ended up using cigar art as their medium, their work appearing on the counters and walls of cigar shops around the world.

"Each image is printed directly from the hand of the artist," says Grossman. "It's amazing. And it's all gone and it will never be done again because the craftsmanship is gone. Today, it's all mechanical and digital. It's hard to believe what they were able to do back then."

Michael Eckles of Showtime Auction Services. The Ben Hur sign, part of his personal collection, is valued at ,000.

Many of the ads are bold. "The more colorful the sign the more apt you were to get that attention," says Eckles. Getting that attention meant sparing little cost in production. Some inks contained precious metals: the red was made with some gold, the blue with silver. "So the colors really pop," says Eckles. Most of the cigar images that Eckles auctions are lithographs, products of a process that was quite complex, and became even more involved as it evolved.

Whereas crafting an ad might be only a mouse click away today, a century ago the art of making lithographs could take a month or more. A simple sketch from a customer (or an artist) would be transformed into a pencil drawing, then a watercolor. The painting was then sent to the lithographic department, where a specialist interpreted the painting using a type of paint-by-numbers diagram. This was then translated onto lithographer's limestone, and the printing process used stones weighing hundreds of pounds.

Like the Crockett image, many of the signs featured classic figures from history and folklore or just interesting images that told a story or appealed to the sensibilities of the times. What may appear campy today was a powerful tool in the early days of advertising to mass audiences. Just look into the soulful, blue pressed-tin eyes of Walt Whitman peering out from under a floppy-brimmed hat and bushy yellow-white beard. "Walt Whitman Cigar" is emblazoned across the top in marquis font, and at the base is a slogan that reads "a poetic comfort." The sign was made in 1901, by Kaufmann and Strauss Lithographers in New York City, and is valued at $10,000.

Victorian lovers of the leaf could smoke with the age's upper crust by puffing on the Royal Badge Cigar brand, according to the company ad. Hyped as the smoke of "modern kings," the 1912 paper ad is adorned with the faces of such tycoons as J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, superimposed over money bags. Note that the Royal brand was priced at 15 cents for 10 cigars, according to the sign. Quite the bargain, even in the early 1900s.

Other prints couple cigar brand names with actual royal figures, such as one for Henry the Fourth Clear Havanas from 1908. A 1910 ad for King Alfred cigars shows the noble resplendent in crown and mantle, with nary a cigar to be found in the picture. Both ads are printed on tin.

In a self-perpetuating and evolving cycle, these signs became effective in expanding the cigar industry and captured the work of respected artists. By spreading awareness and appeal, they sold more cigars, spurring the release of new brands, which resulted in the commissioning of more signs. This also led to greater competition among brands in the tobacconist's displays and an even greater need for dynamic, eye-grabbing ads.

Given the omnipresence of the ads and the durable materials used to craft many of them, you would think they would be easy to acquire. But the signs weren't considered worth saving, so they have become extremely rare, especially those in good condition.

Many of the signs featured classic figures from history and folklore or just interesting images that told a story or appealed to the sensibilities of the times.

Finding quality pieces is also more difficult because of the boom experienced for all ephemera after the 1980s, according to Dann. The collecting of ephemera, he wrote, is part of a trend that encompasses other artifacts of American social history, such as furniture, folk art and jazz recording, which were considered worthless for a time before becoming valued.

With museums and libraries taking an interest as well, it makes it hard for a small collector to find precious pieces. It "permanently removes some of the finest material from the market," writes Dann. "Extremely fine and important lithographs, original advertising art, early posters, printed broadsides, photographic items, available at fairly reasonable prices in 1980, have become truly scarce and extremely expensive."

Eckles, who has been collecting since the 1970s, says the age of the item is always a factor in determining its price, as is the rarity, but condition and the type of image involved is also key. Scenes involving action and ads done in bright graphics can cause the price to skyrocket.

"Image and condition are the things that drive the price up—no scratches, no dents or fading. Remember, these signs are 100 years old," says Eckles. He expects their value to continue to rise. "I strongly believe," he says, "that I will be selling some of these signs for over $100,000 in the next ten years."

Getting these forgotten treasures out of attics, basements or estates and back on the block is Eckles' stock in trade. He specializes in featured collectors' auctions where a client with a large collection will consign his lot of rare originals to Showtime Auctions. Showtime will collect a 10 to 20 percent commission from both the consigner and the buyer.

Not all the collectors of cigar ephemera are cigar smokers. Some nonsmokers simply appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the old cigar ads and the high quality of the materials used to put them together. Butler, who retired after selling his recreational vehicle manufacturing business in 1989, does not smoke cigars and never has. He said that he enjoys buying pre-Prohibition cigar art pieces because he likes the way they look, and because they're no longer made.

"I enjoy the way things were built," he says. "I just enjoy looking at this early type stuff. Everything is plastic today. [Things were] made of really quality stuff back then."

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