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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.

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