The Great Divide: You Are What You Collect

This article was originally published in the "web extras" section of the Pipes & Tobacco Magazine website, which is sadly now defunct. It appears here on Pipedia by permission of the author.

Ben Rapaport examines a phenomenon in the collecting hobby.
Ben Rapaport

In Rudy Koshar’s Histories of Leisure (2002), Dr. Matth­ew Hilton of the University of Birmingham, England, argues that in the 20th century, “Smokers became public collectors, of literary anecdotes, of pipes, tobacco boxes, cigars, ornamental snuff boxes, and later cigarette cards.” I have the utmost respect for Hilton as an authority on tobacco history, but there is evidence that many smokers and nonsmokers started collecting pipes much, muc­h earlier. Not worth arguing over. But I do want to address the phenomenon of public collectors of pip­es then and now. I have a thought that I’d like to share with the readers, and it’s not, as the title might indicate, about a geographical place, the Great Divide, or if you prefer, the more accepted name, the Continental Divide. The title is an analogy for what, I believe, is a great divide of another kind, an ageist issue among pipe collectors. It’s not something I have been studiously analyzing for a long time; it’s just a gut feeling that I have, a working hypothesis based on observational information, not scientific data.

I am 72 (in many conventional studies I am ‘young-old’ [60–74], as opposed to ‘old-old’ [74 and older]), and I have been collecting all kinds of antique pipes for about a half-century. When I took an interest in these pipes, I was just out of college, impressionable and ignorant, but fascinated and awe-struck with these old utensils of smoke; I was hooked. Everyone whom I contacted by letter or met then was at least 60 years old, some much, much older, so I assumed that all antique pipe collectors were senior citizens, the age-challenged, grumpy old men, former young people. In those days, I knew many pipe smokers, but I had never heard about, read of, or encountered that individual known as the briar pipe collector.

Not much has changed in my collector community. As I look around nowadays and reflect, just about everyone I know who seriously collects any type of antique pipes, whether he’s American or European, or from the Far East or South Asia, is at least 50 years old. Are there any folks who collect antique pipes and are, say, younger than 50? As best I know, hardly any perhaps none. Why is this? Are antique pipes too rich for a young man’s pocketbook? I don’t think so, given that some of today‘s new and vintage briars command as much as or more than many antique meerschaum, porcelain or old wood pipes. ­ Are we from another time and place? Would I be abusing the title of John Gray’s 1992 best-selling book by declaring that antique pipe collectors are from Mars, and briar pipe collectors are from ­Venus? I don’t think that either. Could it be that the younger generation has a predisposition only for briar pipes? Perhaps. In 2007, the Coen brothers’ film, “No Country for Old Men,” was released. Using my poetic license—I just got it renewed in January 2009—could there be a sequel about antique pipe collectors called “No Hobby for Young Men”? I think so—if you accept “young” as being younger than 50—because the vast majority of pipe collectors today are much under 50, they have the means and wherewithal to buy fine pipes, and what they customarily buy are briars. So while they clamor for pipes made by Chonowitsch. Former, Higuchi and Reis, we crave pipes made by Czapek, Fischer, Hartmann and Rosenstiel.

I realize that each of us is dealt a unique hand of tastes and aptitudes, but are personal genomics and behavioral genetics responsible for what we decide to collect, or is it a product of our respective cultures? Maybe it’s just a part of the human condition. It’s quite possible that it has something to do with who we are, not just the age-related changes in testosterone levels. It’s an old saw that old people and young people have a natural rivalry, like cats and dogs, but we are not of the mind to accept the view of George Chapman, a 16th century English dramatist, translator and poet: “Young Men think old men are fools; but old men know young men are fools.” We old-timers, by definition, are of an earlier generation, perhaps having had parents or grandparents that immigrated to the United States, and we were exposed to a different cultural upbringing. My circle of American pipe-collector friends—and I know I am generalizing—consists mostly of those with European-sounding last names; some are first-generation Americans (I am), and others were born elsewhere, having come to America as children, teenagers or adults. I may be on terra incognita with this observation, but I am unable to come up with another, better conclusion, yet this can’t be the only answer; it’s too simplistic, so I have given further thought to this matter of “us” versus “them.”

In the previous three centuries, as I recollect, those who collected antique pipes were from various walks of life, they all collected interesting smokable specimens, and they stuck with it for most of their adult lives. Among the most prominent in the 18th and19th centuries were William Bragge, Pierre Lorillard (of Lorillard Tobacco fame), the Duc de Richelieu (Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis), the Duke of Sussex (Prince Augustus Frederick), Andrew Jackson (Old Hickory), the Iron Chancellor (Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck), Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and Baron Oscar De Watteville, and in the 20th century, Baroness Alice de Rothschild, Alfred Dunhill and the notorious King Farouk. There were others with much less name recognition in the last 100 or so years—Prince Elim Metchersky, János Blaskovich, Adolf Haegeli, Irnák Osskó, Thornton Wills, Erik Stokkebye, Jacques Schmied, Jean-Marie Alberto Paronelli, Carlo Savinelli, Tony Irving, J. Trevor Barton, Henry Pace, James Lee Dick, John F. H. Heide, George Ellis Gary, among them, now all gone—but how old were they when they began to take an interest in pipes? I haven’t a clue.

Throughout the years, the press has given occasional honorable mention to antique pipe collectors. In The New York Times, Nov. 25, 1894, appeared the following feature article: “Fads of Pipe Collectors. Thousands of Dollars Paid for Rare and Beautiful Specimens. Collections of Well-Known Men. Prominent Citizens of New-York Who Have Valuable Meerschaums.” In the July 12, 1936, issue, another feature article appeared: “Rare Pipes As A Hobby; America, Tobacco’s Home, Affords a Wide Field for Collectors.” In this century, here’s an article, the March 11, 2001 issue of the Miami Herald: “Pipe’s Appeal as Collectible Goes Back for Centuries.” Here’s another: “Smoke Signals: Pipe Collecting Back in Vogue; Seen & Noted,” Crain’s Chicago Business, April 30, 2007. Most all the collectors interviewed or mentioned in these articles were oldsters.

There is no formal record of how many pipe collectors there are at any time, but more than 20 years ago, the Dallas Morning News, May 10, 1987, reported that there were 15,000 pipe collectors in the United States. I’d venture that the vast majority, if not most of these 15,000—assuming that this figure is anywhere near accurate—are 50 years of age or less, and I’d also venture that their sole interest is wood. Oh, I am probably a little off on my calculation, because there were a few who were a trifle older; two I remember fondly were the late Tom Colwell and the late Basil Sullivan, but two is not a useful population on which to base a study or draw any defensible conclusions.

First, I’ll state the obvious, something every pipe collector should already know, the principal difference between the two groups: availability of and accessibility to pipes. ‘Bruyère Man’ has the best of all possible worlds, because he can choose when, where and how to start, having a proverbial cornucopia of new and vintage wood offered by brick and mortar establishments, at shows, via mail-order businesses and, of course, on the Internet. Furthermore, characteristic of this community, trades and exchanges are quite commonplace. Not so with us. Our kind of pipes are not available everywhere or all the time in any respectable quantity, and because they are almost always ‘onesies’— one of a kind—we have absolutely no bargaining power with the seller when confronted with a beautiful and rare “gotta have it” pipe. Building a collection of choice pieces is very difficult, so by nature, we are patient … and patience comes with age. It is a truism that often having more time and more patience than the young, we older collectors will research our purchases in far greater detail, we will deliberate at length over each possible accession, and we will weigh, like a greengrocer, whether the piece in question adds something to the collection. (This is not to say that the younger briar collector does not struggle with this intellectual kabuki dance when a buying or trading opportunity arises, but to a lesser extent; we take it to the extreme.) And, most important, we hardly ever swap, exchange or sell to each other, because it’s nearly impossible to arrive at a rational and equitable agreement—medium, size, configuration, motif, age, scarcity, condition, original cost and other discretionary factors must be taken into consideration—even between two reasonable, fair-minded and friendly collectors. All this being true, however, that’s not where I want to go with this hypothesis.

There is a real-world chasm, a gulf between the two collector groups in interests and tastes (these are givens) and intellectual curiosity. This last dimension, intellectual curiosity, is very significant, because, for us, the primary sources are some 250 years worth of literature, nearly all of it written in German, French or Hungarian. We have to find them, then mine them to understand our stuff, to obtain answers to the five basic interrogatives, or at least to get a sense of rudimentary details, such as age and provenance. Some of us don’t have a technical or even a conversational command of any of these languages, and those who do will have to pore through these manuscripts, theses, and industry documentation at Continental libraries, if we can determine which libraries have these troves of research material to mine. We must visit museums in Europe to see these things—there is only one museum in the U.S. with a public display of about 100 antique pipes: the Pioneers Museum, Colorado Springs, Colo.—and we must interview curators and archivists, and ask lots of questions. We must visit European collectors and bleed them for information they have garnered on their own. And we hope that our fellow American collectors will let us in the front door to survey and probe their goodies. Not so when it comes to researching or tracing contemporary briars. Just about every independent briar artisan and every pipe-producing company is accessible to one degree or another today. The search is less complicated and involved, and questions from collectors will probably be readily and fully answered. Aside from the artisan and the factory, there is a trove of free information on briar pipe makers, marks and models at one’s fingertips on the Internet.

It’s certainly not the money issue that separates these two groups, because both the old and the young spend considerable sums on pipes. Maybe it’s that the younger set views these man-and machine-made briars as things of beauty and, simultaneously, as utilitarian vessels for tobacco, whereas the much older generation treats an antique pipe with the greatest degree of TLC, so as not to break, chip, flake, mishandle or damage in any way the delicate nature of these early objects of art. Sure, some of our pipes can be smoked, but those of us who smoke prefer not to engage an antique pipe in the gentle art; we will use a briar for that bit of enjoyment. It might be that younger pipe men are more tactile, so they invest in pipes they can use and abuse, rather than invest in delicate, intricately carved pipes made of more fragile materials that are destined for the shelf of an étagère, the drawer of a hutch, or atop a fireplace mantel. Maybe that’s the key to this puzzlement! Maybe it’s as the French are wont to say: “Chacum a son goût.” We of the old crowd, as a general rule, buy stuff that stimulates only one of the senses: seeing. New-age pipe collectors are of another breed. Their pipes stimulate many senses; they can see, touch, smell and taste the pipe. And if the tobacco burns hot, or the taste is foul, they will experience two other senses, or sensations, respectively, heat and pain.

There is something else, a subtle, but tangible and palpable dimension to what each group collects: the distinctive dialogue! Theirs is animated, intimate and rooted in personal experience, while ours is detached—but sometimes emotional—theoretical, equivocal, and full of hypotheses, conjecture and uncertainties. Let me explain. When briar guys get together, they can compare notes on which pipes smoke well, which don’t and why, and who makes a good, better and best briar; they can contrast the relative skills, execution and finesse of certain pipemakers; and with most new pipes, they can readily identify the grade, series and year of manufacture. All they really need is an essential grounding in two disciplines: wood and the various materials for mouthpieces, such as Lucite, vulcanite, Cumberland, Ebonite and others. In a word, they can participate in an intellectual exercise of specifics and granular details. It’s an admirable and enviable situation that we cannot duplicate.

When antikers get together, the dialogue is never about a pipe’s smokability, wood grain, bore holes, military bits or other attributes of the finished product. We are challenged. Because we know so very little, we talk in broad-sweeping historical generalities, we postulate and posit. It’s near impossible to make comparisons between and among pipes of the same medium or age; more often than not, we have no idea who made what, because nearly all the makers were anonymous craftsmen. We are relegated to discussing what we see in the object and commenting on the skills applied with hand-made, often crude tools for carving, etching, incising and engraving, intricate and artful hand-painting, and the integration and application of various materials that, together, yielded hundreds of thousands of sumptuous-looking pipes. How complicated is all this? It’s not a quick or an easy learn to get smart on all the materials encountered (depending on what each collects). We need at least a fair degree of smarts to recognize amber, amberoid, argillite, assorted woods (around 30), Bakelite, bone, brass, bronze, clay, cloisonné, copper, glass, gold, hardstone, horn, ivory, jade, meerschaum, mother-of-pearl, niello, Paktong, pewter, Pipestone, porcelain, pottery, precious stones, Redmanol, silver, steatite, tortoiseshell and the list goes on. Oh, lest I forget: We must also be able to discern the real McCoy from all the fakes, forgeries and reproductions that proliferate in the market nowadays. Ours is a sportier (and, often, costly) course, yet we, like they, feed off each other and learn. It’s just that our topics are markedly different than those discussed among briar people, but not surprising because, as I have pointed out throughout this monograph, the two groups have different foci, stimuli and motivation.

They’re probably among us now, those seasoned citizens, those mega-adults— sexagarians, septuagenarians or octogenarians—who collect only briars, but I don’t know any personally. I know that this is type-casting or stereotyping, but I sense that it’s like the awkward couple in an ill-fated May-December romance, because I do see a correlation: young collectors seem not to like really, really old pipes that undoubtedly don’t smoke well, and most older collectors don’t seem to like really young pipes. (We do, however, have a wandering eye for young things that are not inanimate!)

If all this is true, nothing is expected to change, and nothing needs to change. There is, after all, room in this hobby for all of us, and we certainly don’t get in each other’s way as we go about our individual hunting and gathering. What we have in common is the “pipe,” generically speaking, and that’s about it. We’re all in it, some for pleasure, some for profit, some for both; for us, the pleasure always comes first: we are hobbyists, not investors. Briar guys can decide what comes first for them.

So maybe it’s not a great divide after all. Maybe it’s similar to that intellectual divide between the weather and the climate communities on their respective views on global warming, or maybe it’s just an imaginary Maginot Line that neither contingent cares to or dares to cross. Whatever the reason(s), this is how I see it, this is my story, and I’m sticking to it.­