Robb Report, Investibles

Cigar Store Figures: Signs of the Times

by Janice Stillman - June 1995


A century ago, Indian chiefs in full headdress, braves toting tomahawks, and robed Indian princesses, as well as sports players, dance hall girls, and court jester-type figures, were among thousands of hand carved wooden characters used as sidewalk signs in front of tobacconists' shops. Today, the surviving examples stand as relics in the homes of American folk art aficionados and tobacciana collectors. 


"Cigar store figures are the epitome of cigar-related collectibles,"states Ben Rapaport of Reston, Va., and he says, "They are the most expensive."


Rappaport has observed and reported on tobacciana, including cigar, pipe, and snuff and related paraphernalia, for 30 years and has written five books on the subject. He also publishes a newsletter dedicated to the genre, appraises collections, and lectures o the topic. "[Cigar store figures] are representative of the economic history and growth of the tobacco industry over the last 150 years," says Rapaport. Of the current interest in the carvings, he says, "People romance tobacciana they do many things of the past."


Whether inspired by love or money,the passion with which collectors have pursued these beauties in recent years has resulted in their values rising like smoke rings - almost out of sight. 


Mark Goldman, one of the most avid private collectors of cigar store figures in the country, has watched the infatuation take hold. Goldman shares his 2,300-square-foot Manhattan loft residence with more than 60 cigar store figures dating from 1860 to 1910 that he has collected over three decades. Tobacco and tobacco related items consume Goldman; he is the third-generation owner of the House of Oxford, which vends tobacco products wholesale, retail and by mail order.


In the early years, he says, he and a relatively small cadre of collectors who referred to themselves as the "nifty 50" attributed more to a figures cachet than to its cash value. Those days, he says, are over. 


"Interest [in cigar store figures] has opened up tremendously in the last several years," says Goldman. "The better Indians - most are Indians - have tripled in value in the last 10 years. Pieces that 20 to 30 years ago went for $10,000 to $15,000 are [valued at] $70,000 - $80,000 and are not available."


"Now you are getting crossover." Goldman continues. "People buying fine art now see cigar store figures as American sculpture, and that blows me out of the water."


Alan Katz of Woodbridge, Conn., bridges that crossover market. He is an art antiques dealer who specializes in Americana and is currently in possession of five cigar store figures: Three, invididually valued at $37,000, $85,000 and $175,000, are part of his inventory; two are his own and are not actively being marketed. One, the latter, a princess standing cross-leggedwhich is signed by carver Samuel Robb, holds the world record for a sale price at an auction, $75,000. Recalling the circumstances of that acquistion, he says, "It was at Sotheby's in 1988, estimated at $30,000 to $40,000. I went ready to spend $125,00." But he didn't have to. When Katz went home with the princess, he still had $50,000 in his pocket. Today, he says, the princess would fetch a royal ransom.


Katz's explanation for the spike in the interest in cigar store figures and the effect on prices is, simply stated, "You're dealing in sculpture."


Elaborating on the matter, Katz explains that some of the people that are buying cigar store figures do not necessarily have a strong interest in period Americana; they are art collectors who acquire a figure "to complete a [Mark] Rothko