Where’s the Real Pipe Action? I Say It’s At the Auction Block! : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Where’s the Real Pipe Action? I Say It’s At the Auction Block!

Auction houses are not often considered as viable places to buy and sell tobacco-related items, but they should be.
Ben Rapaport

“A pipe is a relative­ly uncommon o­bject in t­h­e habits of most people, and it can be considered an example of niche behaviour. This elitist character makes a pipe a ‘cult’ object able to generate passion and aggregate around it a tribe. Since pipe-smokers and collectors are not so numerous, the Internet is the ideal place ­t­o ga­ther enthusiasts in a virtual tribe.” So argued Bernard Cova, Robert V. Kozinets and ­Avi Shankar in Consume­r T­ribes (2007). And what better Internet site for all those virtual-trib­e enthusias­ts than eBay, the hot online pit stop? After all, eBay is a place to shop, to buy, to sell a­nd to collect, where buyers and sellers get an instant insight into the market, or street, value of goods and goodies around the world. But the Internet is not the only current hot spot for pipe enthusiasts.­­ ­­

The two traditional buy-sell-swap-trade venues
For the past 10 or so years, the (briar) buzz and the talk of (tobacco) town have been about eBay and other similar free or near-cost-free e-auction sites because, supposedly, that’s where much of the pipe action is. Just about everyone seems to be raving about the myriad opportunities on eBay, and folks are frenetically buying (starting or expanding their collections) by finding great stuff, or selling (thinning out or dispersing their collections) and making, so say these sellers, big bucks. No better recent opportunity has ever been accorded man (and woman) to snag a great pipe or dump a used one since that 28-year-old French-born, Iranian computer programmer, Pierre Omidyar, got a brilliant idea in 1995 to launch what was initially called Auction Web, later renamed eBay. What’s available on eBay, according to the Google gurus and Internet insiders, are daily-changing super-deals, the “hot” stuff, best buys, bargains galore, attic and basement finds, gems, can’t resists, gotta-have-its and real steals, all just a couple computer keystrokes away. (Some who have watched the burgeoning interest in eBay, while stymied by it as a successful business model, have called it the world’s largest garage sale.) EBay and its clones have been success stories for the last 13-odd years. If not a success story for all the active eBay buyers and sellers, it’s certainly been a financial windfall for the wunderkind-founder, who is supposedly worth about $7.7 billion today.

 

If eBay is not the topic du jour among active pipe men, then it’s the other, longer-running, best thing that ever happened, shows and fairs here and, to a lesser extent, in Europe, where limited-edition and custom-made pipes are debuted, where the occasional briar rarity is discovered, where pipes—new, slightly used, vintage, estate1 (or any number of alternative terms, such as refinished, restored, refurbished, reconditioned, renovated, retooled, repaired and recycled) and antique—can sell from $10 to $10,000, along with an endless array of tinned tobaccos and assorted smoking accessories. The concept and format of the pipe show have changed much since the first one in Burlingame, Calif., about 30 years ago.

 

A third venue
These two aforementioned venues are not the only (pipe) games in town, however. There is a third venue! As I stated previously, most smokers and collectors concentrate their energy and finances on eBay and pipe shows, where they believe all the pipe action really is, but in my experience the public auction house is where the real—as in genuine, tangible, palpable, substantial—pipe action is. (What a difference a transposed word can make.) I would venture that many pipe smokers and collectors have probably overlooked, discounted or ignored the auction venue. It is verifiable fact that auction houses have, in the past 30 or so years, become veritable goldmines of goodies for the tobacco artifact collector, more so for the pipe smoker/pipe collector! And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill stuff, but high-quality, difficult-to-find rarities, vintage and contemporary pieces that one would not customarily encounter at a pipe show or for sale on eBay. Traditionally, the auction house conjures up thoughts of very, very expensive antiques: furniture, ceramics, rare watches and jewelry, Orientalia, bronzes, fine art, etc. Not always true … hasn’t been for quite a number of years. If there is auction-house interest, if the management believes that there will be active and aggressive (i.e., heated and competitive) bidding, the house will accept consignments of tobacco-related collectibles. Auction houses live by a business rule: “When we sell one … more seem to come out of the woodwork,” according to Christie’s New York auctioneer, Gregg Dietrich. So it follows, then, if one particular pipe commands an impressive price at auction, it’ll pique not only the interest of the house but also owners of pipe collections to entertain the idea of selling theirs via the public auction. And I offer the proof that this is so later in this article.

 

Do you also collect figural ceramic tobacco jars? Hundreds, literally, have been auctioned here and in Europe in the last decade. Pipe furniture, antique tampers, cigar cases and cutters, pocket lighters, snuffboxes, cigarette packs and cigarette cards? Plenty of these have circulated at auctions at home and abroad. And the pipe scene is very much alive and well at the auction. About the only tobacco collectibles not actively auctioned on the Continent are pocket tobacco tins, bins and pails, and cigar-box labels, stuff of not much interest to European collectors.

 

Auction finds here
Not wanting to burden the reader with mountains of data, I have culled information selectively from a few auction catalogs and cite a few chronological examples to make my point. As a hunter-gatherer, I had found most of my pipes at flea markets and in the occasional antique store … until 1978, when a flagship event for collectors took place in New York City that set the tone for what I and every other pipe collector consider the place where it’s happening for the last several decades both here and abroad. PB Eighty-Four (a division of Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc.), New York, held sale 615, “Pipes,” on April 4, 1978, described in the press as “the first specialized auction of smoking pipes ever held in New York.” Are briar pipes with intricately carved motifs from the mid-20th century of interest? Among the 291 lots were eight unique, one-of-a-kind, hand-carved and signed briars from a very skilled 20th century American artist identified in the catalog only as Garlow. These were described as follows: (1) “Three frontiersmen around a campfire”; (2) “An Indian hunter seated over a dead stag”; (3) “Two Indian warriors approaching a dead buffalo”; (4) “Two Indians in hand-to-hand combat”; (5) “A Civil War soldier firing a pistol behind a rock”; (6) a gorilla family; (7) a gorilla in the jungle; and (8) a large figural head of a gorilla. The finalized prices ranged from $200 to $600, unquestionable bargains for these exquisite works of a little-known craftsman who might have been one of the contributing sculptors to the Marxman Heirloom series of pipes that Robert Marx started in the late 1940s; it’s also possible that Garlow might have been an independent artisan, because his name is not among the Marxman stable that included Jo Davidson, Cecil Howard, Leslie Sommer, Louis Ted Shima and a few others. Nonetheless, almost all these particular pipes bore dates between 1949 and 1952. His briars were of exceptional quality, and his artistry could have been the inspiration for a more contemporary pipe carver; although the subject matter is markedly different, their respective artistry and attention to detail are rather similar. Do you remember reading Chuck Stanion’s article in Pipes & tobaccos, Fall 2003, “’Of Extraordinary Interest’: A Sherlockian Pipe Collection”? The carved-in-the-round, three-dimensional briar pipes from the deft hand of Marc Darrah are, today, by any standard of quality and execution, in the same caliber class as those masterworks from Garlow carved some 50 years earlier, although it is quite unlikely that Darrah knew about Garlow or was familiar with his work. Robert Hess, who owns many Darrah-made pipes, said in this article: “… Marc’s pipes are all different, all unique.” Ditto for those eight Garlow pipes, and the only place in my recollection where his were for sale was at this PB 84 auction and a few years later recycled at another auction in New York City. (As a postscript, 30 years after the auction, I was sharing this part of my draft article with Mike Leverette, pipe-fact-digger-upper extraordinaire, and he informed me that he had coincidentally found an Internet post from one Tamarack Garlow on http://forum.pipes.org dated Jan. 12, 2005. It read in part:

I am looking for pipes that my father carved in the 50’s when he was living in NYC. He carved elaborate pipes with herds of horses, gorilla heads and western scenes, all in exquisite detail. His name was Lester C. Garlow and he sold to collectors out of Wally Frank’s Pipe Store. I wish to purchase and/or photograph any and all I can find.

Ah, the wonders of the Internet and the dogged and tenacious persistence of my friend, Mike Leverette! I tried to contact Tamarack Garlow, but almost four years had gone by, and that e-mail address was no longer active. Well, everyone who reads about Garlow here now knows that he had a first name and the letter “C” as his middle initial.
If you hunger to own just one pipe with documented provenance, this auction offered a carved pear wood pipe with certification of ownership: Ludwig I, King of Bavaria had handed this pipe down to his son, Ludwig II, the “Mad King” (1845–1886). The castle gardener received it as a gift, then emigrated to Chicago, and sold it for rent money; it was auctioned in Chicago in 1947, and eventually it ended up in this PB 84 auction; hand-written documentation inside the pipe bowl attests to these facts.

In February 1989, Dr. Tony Hyman, also known as Mr. Cigar, offered “The World of Smoking and Tobacco,” consisting of two distinguished collections, Bud Markham’s and Les Barnett’s, and tobacco accessories from several unnamed others. The illustrated auction catalog contained many hundreds of tobacciana collectibles, from caddy labels and cigarette cards to books and magazines, and everything, literally everything, in between. The briar and assorted wood pipe lots 6400–6560 were a windfall of English (Barling, Comoy, Dunhill, GBD, Parker-Hardcastle and Saseini), American (CPF, KBB, WDC, LHS, Dr. Grabow, Kaywoodie and Medico), Italian, Danish, folk art, novelty and the expected array of no-name pipes. The prices? In comparison with current-market prices for similar pipes offered at the 2008 Chicagoland show (20 years later), the realized prices at this auction would produce crocodile-size tears from many of today’s briar pipe smokers and collectors who’d love to see a return to those 1989 price points.

Ever seen a Tiffany-commissioned art nouveau, bejeweled meerschaum pipe, or a Tiffany-hallmarked solid silver and ivory pipe for sale at a pipe show or on eBay? I doubt it! The Lord Chief Justice of Great Britain had ordered the latter pipe for presentation to a certain Jacob Gordon. Both Tiffany pipes were part of the Martin Friedman pipe collection auctioned at Guernsey’s “A Gentleman’s Auction,” in New York on Jan. 18-20, 1991, along with 260 other lots of assorted pipes. Talk about second chances? That Garlow briar figural head of a gorilla at the PB 84 auction in April 1978 had sold for $450; it reappeared in this auction and was gaveled at $800!

Hesse Galleries, Otego, N.Y., is a known auction house. In fall 1994, Hesse advised me of a future, unreserved auction of a pipe collection belonging to Francis J. Smith of Lenni, Pa., who had begun his love for pipes in the 1930s. Some 600 “BRIERWOOD: MEERSCHAUM: KAOLIN: GLAZED PORCELAIN: FIGURALS: NOVELTIES: TOBACCO SAMPLES & RELATED ITEMS” (as printed in the auction catalog) went on the auction block on Oct. 8, 1994, at the Galleries. The auctioneer described this eclectic collection as consisting of “… large brierwood & meerschaum plus an interesting variety of other types including carburator style; air cooled; sparkless outdoor; double bowls; pistols; miniatures; swinging stems; and so on, from America, England, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Holland, Ireland, etc.” In breath and depth of 20th century materials and styles, Smith had it all. To every bidder the auction house handed out a reproduced typewritten catalog describing each of Smith’s accessions; according to his own words: “This index started about 1948 put in index form around 1950 finally typed in February 1954.” And Smith’s indexed catalog listed all the usual suspects: Baronite, CPF, Danco, Dunhill, GBD, Kaywoodie, Kirsten, Longchamps, Marxman, Peterson, Ropp, WDC, Ben Wade, Weber and Yellow Bowl, plenty of good-to-better pipes that sold at less than market value to some very lucky bidders.

The great comedian George Burns died at the age of 100 in March 1996. Although always seen with a cigar, on occasion, George smoked a pipe. Sotheby’s, Los Angeles, auctioned Burns’ estate on Oct. 10, 1996. One of George’s meerschaum pipes was part of Lot 214, “George Burns Personal Items.” Now that would be a celebrity pipe at any show!

On Feb. 13, 1999, James D. Julia, Inc., an auction house in Fairfield, Maine, offered the late Robert Lang (Rye, New York) Collection for sale, 407 lots, more than 1,000 items altogether. Lang had begun collecting in the 1930s, and his collection had been in storage for some 30 to 50 years prior to ­this sale. Like Smith, Lang owned it all: cigar-store figures, snuff mulls and boxes, tobacco boxes, tobacco cutters, pipes, figural cigar lighters, cigar boxes … you name it. The auction was the appropriate venue, because it was too much for one collector (or antique dealer) to assume for himself, more than anyone could bring to a pipe show, and too labor-intensive a task to catalog and photograph for sale at an e-auction; and remember, eBay was only four years old in 1999.  Among the eclectic assortment were 48 briar pipes in a nested display case with trade names from companies now long forgotten: Packard Italian Briar, Deville National Walnut Briar, Turin Italian Briar and others of this ilk, just the kind that would have appealed to the late Tom Colwell, brand “X” pipe aficionado extraordinaire.

You should have noticed that almost all the houses mentioned so far are not the crème de la crème or the premier of the auction world. Auction houses located in smaller cities often sell some of everything. They typically hold large, quarterly auctions with higher-quality goods and smaller, monthly auctions with lower-quality goods. Country auctions sell everything—some high-quality and some lesser-quality goods. They often don’t have a fixed auction schedule and hold one only when there is enough merchandise to sell. Normally, generally, usually, almost always, country auctions do not publish a formal catalog, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether good-quality pipes will be on the block at this type of auction, and the only way to find out is to attend.

Auction finds abroad
I now shift the focus to Europe to strengthen my thesis. The famous (William) Bacon’s The Tobacconist in Cambridge, England, was founded in the early 1800s and drew clients from royalty, the H.R.H. Prince of Wales, King Edward, the Duke of Devonshire, Edward VII, and members of the arts, such as the brothers Tennyson and Samuel Butler. After 178 years of service to its loyal clients, it was shuttered in 1983. Four years later, on Dec. 9, 1987, Christie’s, South Kensington, London, sold its contents at auction. If you were there, you would have been able to nab not only some handsomely finished wood display cabinets and vintage signage, but also and more important, much of the residual stock of English-made briar pipes, some dating back to the early 1900s.

The year 1990 was a great year for pipe buyers, if you were in England, or you got word about this auction and had access to a phone or a fax machine. Phillips Auctions sold the entire contents of “The House of Pipes” in three phases: March, October and December. It was a giant sale, stuff belonging to Anthony “Tony” Irving, who had collected over a 40-year period and had opened a museum in Bramber, England, in 1973, to exhibit his 20,000 smokiana goodies, including pipes of every style, age, quality and material. You name it and Tony owned it, lots of it, at least until March 1990.
In 1957, the American Tobacco Company donated the Half-and-Half Pipe Collection to the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Va. In 1991, Austria Tobacco purchased the collection from the Valentine as part of its expansion program to make its museum in Vienna the finest in the world. In 2001, Gallaher Tobacco Group of England acquired Austria Tabak, and it decided to shutter the museum and divest itself of a large portion of the museum’s antiquarian tobacciana inventory. On Oct. 22-23, 2002, Wiener Kunst Auktionen of Vienna offered the public the opportunity to bid on 1,416 lots of smoking-related finery, a mere fraction of the museum’s colossal holdings. (The full-color auction catalog was three-quarters of an inch thick!)  Among the choice items were 19th-century carved briars from St. Claude and contemporary briars in absolute pristine condition from Bari, Dunhill (including two six-day sets), Erik, Fairmorn, Hardcastle, Kulpinski, Lorenzo, Matzhold, Parker, Peterson, Savinelli, Stanislav, Stanwell, Szabo, WDC, Ben Wade and briars of lesser note; cased Ehrlich, Strambach and Andreas Bauer meerschaums; an assortment of calabashes; and most all the pipes from the Valentine Museum’s Half-and-Half Pipe Collection purchased 11 years earlier, including a very unusual group of cased “WDC” silver-plate-on-briar pipes with amber mouthpieces—not those with sterling silver filigree cutwork so often sold on eBay, but a uniform, solid layer of plate enwrapping the entire bowl and shank—a format that perhaps no other American or European pipe company produced. Because the antique component of this auction drew a large crowd of aggressive buyers from around the world, the modern woods and calabashes commanded less attention and less action. One of the two Dunhill six-day sets sold for 750 euros when the euro and the dollar were of about equal value, a bargain on any day of the week.

Here is more evidence. How about having the bragging rights to some great pipes from the famous Alfred Dunhill Pipe Museum? There were two related auction events of Dunhill Museum stuff. The first was held at Christie’s South Kensington, London, on May 12, 2004. Christie’s offered “The Private Collection of Pipes, Tobacco Jars and Books of Mr. Alfred Dunhill,” and word of this auction traveled fast across the Continent and as far away as Japan. Prices of the pipes varied markedly, as expected, from as little as 47 pounds sterling to as much as 10,755 pounds sterling. Most bidders believed that this was the end of an affair with Dunhill. Having intimate knowledge of this internationally famous collection, and convinced that not all the Dunhill Museum pipes were present at this auction, I was proved correct when two years later Christie’s announced “The Interior Sales” for May 22-23, 2006. This was the second opportunity to snag a bit of legendary pipe history, owning one or more pipes that Alfred Sr. began to collect in the early 1920s. This time, the action was hotter and heavier than that of the first Dunhill sale, and several auction records were broken. The Internet offers several articles on this auction; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/2937795/Auction-mouse-Auctions-for-pipe-dreamers.html and http://www.tobacco.org/articles/category/collectibles/?top_only=1. There were no 47 pound sterling pipes, but there were two at the opposite end of the money spectrum that certainly corroborate what many people say about the auction scene—it’s too darn expensive for my taste—an antique meerschaum cheroot holder, including buyer’s premium, went for £16,800, and an antique meerschaum pipe went for £26,400, including buyer’s premium, or in that day’s dollar equivalent, $32,780 and $51,510, respectively. Of course, I realize that without knowing any of the details surrounding these two gems, you would wonder who’d pay that kind of money for a pipe. Well, it was probably either someone who fell in love with these two, irrespective of prior ownership, or individuals who needed to own the very finest smoking memento representing the Dunhill Museum legacy. Would Dunhill management have offered these bibelots on eBay or hawked them at a local pipe show? You already know the answer. When public and some corporate-funded museums divest (also known as deaccession), they do not (normally) sell to private parties, so in the case of Austria Tabak and Dunhill, the auction route was the only means to purchase anything either company deaccessioned for sale.

There is an article posted on the Internet that I commend everyone to read: John Windsor’s “Art Market: Smoke Screens: In the Sales” in the Independent (London), Oct. 22, 1995. He has a rather distorted opinion about smokables at auction, believing that there is no market for them and asking questions such as: “After all, who would want mucky old briars?” Little did he know, eh? (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_19951022/ai_n14013406?tag=artBody;col1).

Auction house audit trail
Why am I so keen on auction-house pipe action? Since 1969, I have been tracking pipes of all manner and matter that have appeared at auction here and overseas. The following are the stats on how many auctions, worldwide, have consisted of either a large collection of pipes or were pipe-only auctions; such sales appeal to a very narrow audience and, you should understand, it is a risky business venture for any commission-based auction house, but it’s a concept that continues to have some degree of success in certain locales.

Auctions in which tobacco pipes were sold
(1969 to April 2009)

Country/Region Number of Auctions
USA 55
Great Britain 46
Continental Europe (excluding Paris, France) 30
Paris, France 47
Total 178

 

That’s an average of about four pipe-related auctions each year somewhere in the western world, or just about the same number of pipe shows held in the U.S. annually. As I reckon, this idea of selling tobacciana at auction started here at home in April 1978 with that PB 84 auction—a groundbreaking event for American pipe collectors of every stripe. Thereafter, pipes appeared infrequently and in small numbers at various auctions in the U.S. About three years later, the trajectory of auction activity took a sharp upward turn and immediately shifted to Great Britain. There was a lengthy spate of auctions in London, most of them organized by Christie’s, South Kensington, and a few by Bristol Auction Rooms and Phillips, London, in the early to mid-1980s, having taken their cue from that earlier, successful PB 84 sale. After a lull of a few years, the activity shifted, once again, this time migrating across the pond to the Continent, and more specifically, to France. Hôtel Drouot in Paris is a public auction center with 16 salles(auction rooms) that various local auction houses use for their sales; it is the epicenter of tobacco pipe and smoker accessory sales today, and these sales, almost always catalogued under the rubric of “Tabacologie,” have been quite frequent in the last few years, averaging at least two or three annually. Three auction houses very actively involved in selling pipes at Drouot are Olivier Coutau-Bégarie, Delorme Collin du Bocage and Artcurial Briest Poulain Le Fur. Their catalogs are great references, because they are replete with full-color illustrations of a variety of (occasionally) new, old, vintage and antique wood, meerschaum, porcelain, clay, glass, metal, Oriental, African, whimsy and outsider art pipes, clay pipe molds, pipe furniture, books, catalogs and art, along with, of course, many antiquarian cigar and snuff utensils. What is the cause for this sudden surge in pipe auction activity in France? Perhaps French collectors are passing on and their estates given to an auctioneer to disperse, or the owner has tired of collecting, or he is desperate for instant cash … but who cares? What is operative is that some truly great stuff is being snagged by those who follow the field closely, and I would suspect that the average American pipe smoker-collector has never given thought to the idea that the auction house, a less-traveled avenue, should be fully explored. Sure, some of these Continental houses are charging a 15 percent, 20 percent or even a 22 percent buyer’s fee, and then there are the attendant sales tax (VAT) and shipping fees. Well, if you’re serious about your hobby and are on the lookout for great pipes to add to your collection, ya gotta go where the action is, ne c’est pas? Some people say that the auction is a venue too rich for their wallet; that some pipes gavel out at exorbitant prices, as much as thousands of dollars; that the exchange rate between a weak dollar and a stronger Euro is not appealing; and that there is the attendant language problem, making bidding a bit difficult for the language-challenged. All true. But, on the plus side, pipes at these auctions often go begging for a bidder, and the pipes that do not sell are then tagged for return to the owner. Post-auction, but before they are returned to the seller, anyone can initiate a dialogue with the house about buying the residual item(s) offline, often at the reserve price. So, the picture is not that financially bleak.

It’s that third component of this tobacciana-collectible trinity, the third leg of this tobacciana-collectible triad that has probably eluded the sharp eye and keen mind of the aggressive American pipe collector, that venue that, I suspect, many have failed to embrace. If you’re looking for an erotic, exotic, elegant or eclectic pipe, the odds are better that you’ll find one or more at a public auction than at a local pipe show or on an e-auction site. But if you’ve never been to a live auction, know this in advance. It’s not on eBay where the frenetic bidding war occurs; it’s at the public auction. And there’s one significant advantage to attending an auction than buying on eBay, the preview: items are typically on display for several days in advance of the sale date and generally you can pick up, touch, inspect and examine all the items in which you have interest; it’s called due diligence, a “must do” for the potential buyer. Often eBay sellers do not know how to describe an item accurately, more often they do not know what they own, so getting answers to specific questions is like pulling taffy. But having said this about eBay, I also need to mention a significant downside of the live auction that is not characteristic of eBay: zombies, shills and lunatics—known as the competition—are every auction bidder’s nightmare. If a zombie knows who you are, he/she will follow your every move. Their motto is “if that person is willing to spend $100 for a lot, I sure can afford to spend $110.” The eBay counterpart, I guess, would be sniping. There is another, lesser downside to a live auction: generally, a floor bidder, if unsatisfied with his purchase, can’t return the item, because floor bidders are assumed to have inspected the merchandise beforehand. Come to think of it, under certain circumstances, you
could encounter the same resistance from an eBay seller.

­For the experienced collector, the act of bidding at a live auction is a rush, a high, a religious experience; for those unfamiliar with or inexperienced at it, it’s a pocketbook panic attack … and rational thinking is somehow lost in the heat of the bidding battle, so live auctions are not for the faint-hearted. If you are new to auction bidding, search the Internet for some independent and objective free guidance before you attend your first live auction or participate in absentee (telephone or written) or online bidding. There are many Web sites that offer sound advice, and I offer three that serve the neophyte well, such as the “Seven Rules for Buying at Auction” (http://www.jenman.com.au/BS_B_Auction.php),
http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/5-11-2006-95806.asp
, and http://www.fiskeandfreeman.com/BuyingAntiquesatAuction.aspx; these three are worth a few minutes of your time to read and ingest … and follow to the letter.

How to stay current: What’s happening where?
Desirous of finding out more? Your local newspaper is the best source for finding out when and where auctions are held in your area. Remember, anyone can attend, and auctions are free and open to the public. Another way to stay in touch is a subscription to one (or two) tabloids or magazines that follow the auction scene. For example, two popular American publications are Maine Antiques Digest, a monthly, and Antiques and Arts Weekly; they are my favorites, covering all the auction action throughout the eastern United States. Or consider subscribing to www.artfact.com; as a subscriber, you can, it claims, “find, price & research antiques & fine art” as it tracks current and future sales at more than 2,000 auction houses. Artfact is one of a host of free and fee-based online auctions offering an assortment of different client services. Two others are www.LiveAuctioneers.com and www.salesroom.com. But because most of the big-time pipe auctions, for now, occur in the IXth Arrondissement where the Drouot is located, I would recommend a subscription to the weekly magazine La Gazette de l’Hôtel Drouot; it follows what’s happening in all the salles at this auction center.

If I have been convincing in this thesis, then every reader should consider adopting a ‘new and improved’ acquisition strategy, a formula for the winning-est collector: eBay + pipe shows + auctions = 100 percent coverage of nearly all public selling venues (excluding items for sale in the classifieds of local newspapers). Tobacco pipes appear at auction just about anytime of the year, at any place around the country, and one never knows the quantity or quality of the pipes offered until the auction is announced; auctions are not an event as predictable as pipe shows, which are almost always announced in advance in tobacco publications. The only sure way of staying abreast is by subscribing to an antiques journal to follow the auction scene and be surveillant for those auction announcements. And a word of caution: be on the lookout for broad, descriptive words in announcements, such as objects of virtu (or vertu), bibelots and smalls; auction houses sometimes catalog pipes and other tobacco collectibles within such categories. Follow the auction houses specializing in political and Americana memorabilia, such as Dallas, Texas-based Heritage Galleries & Auctioneers; this auction house occasionally offers the figural pipe bust of a president, a Civil War general, or some other notable in its frequent sales. And don’t forget all the frequent auctions across America selling country-store collectibles and advertising artifacts. There is no easy way, no shortcut: ya gotta do the homework. It’s really not that hard or time-consuming, and it can pay off big time with some great finds that you would not otherwise encounter by­ Web surfing and networking with your pipe-collecting friends.

Wrap-up
The pipe show is very unique venue with a singular focus, so it cannot be rationally compared to antique shows and online (and public) auctions. As to these other venues, here are my departing thoughts. Consider that anyone anywhere in the world—from Tucson to Timbuktu who owns or has access to a computer—can bid on eBay, so the playing field is wide open, globally wide open. Moreover, every player can get smart fast by reading eBay for Dummies, Internet Auctions for Dummies or eBay-sponsored tutorials. Not so with public auctions, and it’s not because Antique Shows for Dummies has not yet been written. True, many auction houses, particularly in the United States, are simultaneously linked to eBay (adapting the Wrigley’s chewing gum jingle, ‘double their pleasure, double their funds’), but many more are not, so the buyer community—even when taking into account written and phone-in absentee bidders—is typically smaller. Other general considerations, actually advantages, that favor the auction house, if you are there, are, for example, the chance to identify the floor bidders, the competition (and their bidding thresholds), i.e., to know thy enemy; the opportunity to closely inspect the items for condition and authenticity; the ability to take immediate possession of the winning lots; and the absence of sniping, that nettlesome online auction strategy that foils so many online bidders. There is yet another factor for comparison that must be highlighted, the eBay seller’s occasional “secret reserve price” (this is not a minimum bid amount). In the catalog of every reputable auction house sale reserve prices are always listed, and the auctioneer is obliged to make this fact known to the attending public, so no secrets here. And there’s something that you can do at a public auction that is not as easily managed online: attend as a spectator. This is an excellent way to discover current-market auction prices and to observe the big guns in action who want what you want, and to learn their winning ways. Heck, that’s plenty of reasons why I think the public auction is a more welcoming and open environment in which to bid and buy!

Finally, as in all things antique and collectible that are in ever-increasing and constant demand, ya buys yer ticket and ya takes yer chance. Or, maybe it’s another bit of apropos country wisdom regarding the auction scene: if you don’t look, ‘ya won’t know what yer missin’!

End note
Quite honestly, I cannot understand how or why the word “estate” crept into the pipe lexicon. I just don’t get it, but I am not in the briar mainstream, and maybe I am too parochial. Most every dictionary meaning of this word does not convey the idea of a used condition, yet this word has taken on a life of its own. John Windsor, in his article, “Art Market: Smoke Screens: In the Sales” that appeared in The Independent, on Oct. 22, 1995, claims: “The auctioneers have tried to counter this natural revulsion [for used briars] by inventing a name for used pipes: ‘estate’ pipes, as in deceased’s estate.” I believe that some collector or dealer, not an auctioneer, introduced this term. Were I the final arbiter of approved words for the pipe trade, I would have enthusiastically adopted B.S. pipes, rather than estate pipes. (No, it’s not what you might be thinking. B.S. is short for the British boot sale!) Before I pass on to the next life, maybe someone will do me the favor of giving a proper burial to “estate” and offer an alternative term.

And, at the same time, someone ought to dump two 30-year-old terms concocted by the President of PCI, C. Bruce Spencer, kapnismology and kapnismologist. I am of the school that teaches never to use a foreign word when an English word will suffice. These two particular words add absolutely nothing to our lexicon.

 

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Category: Summer 2009, Web Extras

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