Making Money on Hot Collectibles: Vintage Cigarette Items
As a longtime collector and dealer in antique and vintage items, I often use my psychic radar to predict what I believe will sell now - or in the immediate future. A while back, I suggested making money on money collectibles - old currencies, tokens, and outdated forms of money seemed to be selling like hotcakes on auction sites (actually selling quite a bit better than hotcakes). I took my own advice and made more than a pretty penny on some antique tokens and coins. Today, I'm recommending making money on vintage and older cigarette items - particularly cigarette packs, cigarette lighters and cigarette trading cards.
On the SY hot collectibles meter, they are a #3 (meter ranges from 1-5) and climbing! The key to making money on collectibles is to anticipate where the market is going so you can buy now at bargain prices and sell for a profit as the market goes up. For vintage cigarette items, the market is just beginning to light up. Not only can you make some good change now and in the near future on cigarette items, you can also turn the tables, at least an inch or two, on the greedy tobacco companies that made so much money on us. If that isn't fun, I don't know what is (as Kurt Vonnegut might have said).
Setting aside how you may feel about cigarettes is primo. If you're ok with trading in them, go for the gusto and keep your eyes open for the vintage cigarette packs (preferably 1920s-60s), for the beautifully decorated Art Deco cigarette cases, for the advertising and novelty vintage cigarette lighters and for the more valuable trading cards that were once promotional items when inserted in cigarette packages. Maybe your Great Uncle Joe has a stack of old Camels he never smoked (worth money now; maybe $7-$20 per pack and up).
Maybe he also had an old lighter, advertising Coca Cola or a Chevrolet ($30 and up). Maybe your Grandma collected cigarette trading cards featuring 1920-40s movies stars (worth money now; maybe $5 per card and up, depending on the film star). Tobacciana (as it is called) is a big collectible niche - including everything from those items named above to cigarette holders, pipes and ashtrays. Currently, I see the market as bullish for old cigarette packs (especially those long out of business, and even those popular in the Mid-Century). There's also a decent demand for vintage figural lighters (shaped like guns or even old cigarette machines).
There's also interest in promotional items for popular brands, like GM or Coke. Some people are still treasure hunting for the rarest cigarette cards (a Honus Wagner card, known as The Holy Grail of cigarette trading cards, sold for more than $1 million on eBay a while back). Trading cards must be hard-to-find and in good condition; either sports or entertainer-related, or you must find a quantity of them to make a worthwhile sale.
Perhaps it's because smoking cigarettes is so unhealthy and politically incorrect or maybe it's because state governments are either heavily taxing them now or soon will be, but vintage cigarette items are selling well. All health and morality issues aside, and speaking only from the collector's perspective, if you can find old packs of cigarettes (intact), you've just cashed (or will soon).
And nobody gives a fig about smoking the old things; they just want the intact package as it was back then. Some people make tobacciana their specialty; others collect for the wonderful, colorful, old-school art graphics on the trading cards or the packages. There are several types of buyers for vintage cigarette items; that's what you want in a collectible item: More demand, less supply.
Here's a list of some of the more valuable, oldest (pre-1920s) cigarette packs to look for: Sweet Caporal, HomeRun, Sunshine, Coupon, Murad, Mogul, Pall Mall, Chesterfield, Fatima and Cravens.
The 1920s and later, Depression era and Mid-Century brands that can still bring you cash: Camel, Old Gold, Lucky Strike, Herbert Tareyton, Spud, One-Eleven, Wings, Picayune, Barking Dog, Airline, Listerine, Twenty Grand, Turf, Rum and Maple, Marvels, Coffee-tone, Philip Morris, Raleigh, Wings. A little later, and more retro - Virginia Slims (you've come a long way, baby), More, Benson & Hedges. The average price for a vintage or antique cigarette pack, in good, unopened condition, goes for $7 and up and up), depending on the condition and the rarity. Of course, if you land an unopened vintage carton, you're in the chips! (possibly $100 and up).
If you want to branch out to cigarette trading cards - or maybe even start there - this also is a desirable collectible area. Originating in the late 1870s in the U.S. and Canada, cigarette trading cards were introduced as promotional items, known as "enticements." One small card per pack (approx. 1.5" x 2.5"), look for Joe Lewis and Jack Dempsey to actors to first-aid tips.
The sets generally consisted of 25-50 in a series, although some reached to 100. Turf cigarettes featured as series of 1930-40s film stars (my Ida Lupino Turf trading card watches over my desk), but there were also a series of birds, roses, baseball players, Indian chiefs, famous soldiers, trees and airplanes (I have a large set of airplane trading cards from Wings cigarettes that I got from a junk store 20 years ago. I'm thinking about framing them).
Notable cigarette cards: If you find another Honus Wagner card (there were maybe 50-200 published before he demanded they be withdrawn) forget about ever needing to work again; you can buy the company, if you want still want to. You will need to search out the American Tobacco Company's T206 set. And I wish you good luck with that. If you can't find Honus, some of the rarest cards are those known as "Clown and Circus Artistes" from Taddy. You are much more likely to find other less valuable, but worthy trading cards at a flea market, swap meet or junk store - not at the antique mall.
Antique dealers will have researched them and marked them way up before you even get a chance to treasure hunt for them. But flea markets and swap meets are often a treasure trove of trash that really isn't. You just have to dig through the stuff to uncover what you're looking for.
Other tobacco collectibles worth treasure hunting for: ashtrays (especially vintage ashtrays from famous clubs, like 21 or restaurants like The Brown Derby); vintage lighters (there are some great stainless steel figurine lighters worth collecting: I sold one shaped like a 1930s airplane), but the novelty lighters are also fun to find and sell: pin-ups or advertising promos from the Mid Century. If you find an old GM or Chrysler car advertising lighter, sell! And, finally: matches.
I recently sold a batch of 5 OLD GM matches (more valuable now because of GM's current problems and changes). I have a big bag of old match books, which I collected mainly for the graphics - but with all the companies going out of business, some of these match books have grown in value since I snagged them at an estate sale. Matches (only those in very good condition, without striker damage) are easy to find at flea markets and swap meets. You won't make a mint off them, but depending on what you find, you can make some fast cash.
Finally-finally, if you are looking for a place to sell your cigarette packs, trading cards, ashtrays, lighters or matches, try eBay, Bonanzle (free to list, easy to use, and friendly) or even Etsy. If you have some time on your hands and a flea market or swap meet close by, you can get started making a little pocket money by looking for cigarette collectibles. Despite the rough economy, there seems to be a thriving collectibles market for tobacco products and for certain collectible niches overall, although buyers are pickier and looking for bargains. It's a buyers' market now, but that's no reason not to sell the "hot" stuff.
Resources: Personal experience, Good-bye to All That book (1970), eBay, internet references.