THE COLLECTION

THE BIG SMOKE

They say successful people smoke cigars – but do the really clever ones collect them?

ANWER BATI

AUHTOR OF THE CIGAR COMPANION:

A CONNOISSEUR'S GUIDE

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I can remember it like it was yesterday, on freezing cold night, the smoking terrace of the Boisdale restaurant was in London’s Belgravia was packed with high-spirited cigar afficionados all desperate to snap up a rare set of 10 Romeo y Julieta double corona Cuban cigars. After frenzied bidding by shivering buyers from around the world, a Japanese collector finally beat a rival from Hong Kong, and paid the princely sum of £13,225 for the cigars dating back to the 1950s. It was a record price per cigar at public auction, and showed just how much money heavyweight cigar enthusiasts are willing to spend to acquire extremely rare cigars.

Handmade cigars have always been a symbol of luxury, but the boom in collecting took off in the mid-1900s, largely thanks to buoyant western economies. Several new cigar books and magazine glamourized and popularized the pastime, raising the experience of smoking a cigar to that of savoring a fine wine. Imports of premium cigars to the United States – the largest cigar market in the world – rose five-fold in four years as smoking cigars became fashionable with a younger, moneyed set. Seeing the demand, in 1999 Christie’s in London started holding exclusive cigar auctions twice a year. Many records were broken at these sales, including the sale in October 2000 of three Partagas Lusitania cigars made before the Cuban revolution. They went for £3,000 and were the most expensive cigars in the world at the time. Though the Christie’s auctions stopped since then, many others have since filled the vacuum.

One organizer is Mitchell Orchant who, as well as hosting vintage cigar auctions, also owns C.Gars (www.cgarsltd.co.uk). He says that cigar sales are still high, even in the current tough economic climate. “Sales have been growing annually, as have prices for good-quality vintage cigars, particularly with clients from China, Hong Kong and Japan,” he says. ‘I’m not sure quite how to quantify the market as a whole, but we sell around £2m-worth of vintage cigars a year.”

The most prized collectors’ items have always been Cuban cigars. The island’s temperate climate, the skill of its cigar makers and the low acidity of its soil make Cubans stand out against cigars from anywhere else in the world. And of course, the 1960 American embargo adds an element of mystique and exclusivity. Before Castro’s revolution in 1959 there were more than 1,000 different brands and sizes of Havana cigars. When the industry was nationalized, many factory owners fled and many of the country’s finest cigar brands ceased to exist. Today there are only around 20 handmade types of Cuban cigars.

Other paraphernalia, such as humidors, that are either rare or have historical associations are also highly desirable for cigar devotees. In 1998 a nine-carat gold cigar case given to Sir Winston Churchill by Aristotle Onassis as a birthday present in 1960 – estimated at £15,000 – was sold to a private collector for £43,300 at Sotheby’s. The inscription read: “Happy Birthday from Ari.” And a mundane typed letter inviting an MP for lunch sold for £3,000 because it was framed with one of Churchill’s cigars. In an earlier sale, a battered single-cigar case used by Churchill when he was a soldier on the Western Front in World War I fetched £4,830. Fidel Castro’s signature on cigar boxes and humidors also attracts high prices, and if ever a cigar or smoking artefact linked to Che Guevara came on the market, you can bet it would be snapped up for a ridiculous price.

“People buy rare cigars for several reasons,” says Mitchell Orchant. “Many connoisseurs will typically buy one box to smoke and one box to stash away to age and sell later. Usually they end up having smoked the first box for free with the proceeds of the second box.” Others buy them as curiosities to be kept, maybe sold again, but never smoked. Many cigars, maybe the majority, will improve with a few years’ ageing, but unless they are maintained in suitably humidified conditions, they can only deteriorate – losing their bouquet and drying out. The best bets are fuller-bodied and fatter cigars, such as the stubby robust size. As with fine wine, even incredibly old cigars can sometimes be surprisingly good to smoke. “It’s all down to the way they’ve been kept,” says Orchant. “I’ve received some from the 1930s which are very good.” Of course, very wealthy cigar lovers can afford to buy rare cigars to smoke, not keep. One such fan is Sir Terence Conran: “I bought two or three hundred Monte Cristos at an auction in Havana, and now there are probably none left,” he says.

Whether a collector chooses to smoke or save his handmade bounty, there is a topic that causes plenty of debate between cigar connoisseurs: what will happen if the American embargo on Cuba is lifted? Whenever this might be, there will be a huge new demand for Havana cigars from the United States. Of course, one can only speculate, but the consensus is that annual sales in America could well exceed 40 million. Cuba currently exports around 150 million cigars each year. For some, this is a cloud on the horizon – the worry is that the increase in demand could affect quality – but for those canny investors with large, well-kept collections, it is almost certainly a cause for celebration, as they will see their carefully stored-away cigars start to rocket in value.