Smoking may be unfashionable these days, but there was a time when a stylish cigarette lighter was a social necessity. For sale next Tuesday through Shapiro Auctioneers in Sydney is an exclusive collection of vintage Alfred Dunhill lighters, predominantly from the 1920 to 1940 period.
The vendor is a Sydney lawyer who prefers to remain anonymous. He was previously a watch collector when he spotted a sterling silver Dunhill lighter in an antiques shop in Leura. It attracted his attention because it had an inset clock. He happily paid $150 for it.
That was in 1990. He now has another 40 or so lighters, many in their original boxes, including some rarities he will be keeping. He says his collection is the best in Australia, and among the best in the world. He belongs to a tight network of about 25 dedicated Dunhill collectors throughout Europe and America.
Lighters from the pre-war period are the most in demand. These are identified by the patent no. 143752, a reference to the horizontal flint mechanism introduced in 1923 with the Unique series. Good examples are worth about $3000 for the standard silver model.
Worth more are the special editions, including a 1935 Golf lighter which has a locker key attached to the case, and a Sports model featuring a wind guard for outside use. Both have estimates of about $4000.
He also has luxury models in 9ct, 14ct and 18ct gold. There are also lighters made by Dunhill for jewellers like Asprey & Co. and Cartier. One of the Cartiers is a tiny cylindrical model about the same size as a lipstick. It was designed especially for ladies to hide discretely in their purses. Estimate is $3000.
These are among the 1000 versions detailed in the book The Dunhill Petrol Lighter, by Italian collectors Luciano Bottoni and Davide Biel. This book itself worth about $200, and is considered the bible by collectors. It covers the period from the 1914 petrol prototype to the 1956 Rollagas, Dunhill’s first butane lighter. Collectors switch off at that point.
These lighters mark a period when smoking was considered socially acceptable. It still is in some countries. The vendor quotes an estimate that there are about 500 million active smokers in China and for many a vintage Dunhill is the ultimate status symbol (along with a gold Rolex).
Overseas, Asians have moved into this market with their usual determination and deep pockets. The vendor is hopeful that they will become as involved in this sale, to be held in Queen Street, Woollahra, as they already have in real estate in the neighbourhood.
He sees these as objects of industrial art but is also aware of their potential investment. “The usual increase in value over time,” he says. “Much the same as for art.”
Worth noting that the first lighter he picked up for $150 in 1990 is now worth about $3000.
The vendor has also decided to include his collection of gold Rolex watches dating from the 1990s forward.