A Conversation Piece: "The Most Expensive Pipe"
by Ben Rapaport (October 2021)
Those familiar with my writing know that I am a contrarian-documentarian. Although not a Trekkie, I “boldly go where no man has gone before” to write about the arcana and esoterica of pipes and tobacco, so it should be no surprise that I chose to investigate and examine this topic. Search the Web, and you’ll find many entries with the title “The Most Expensive Pipe,” “What’s the Most Expensive Pipe?” or similar commentaries. The three forums on pipesmagazine.com, “Your Most Expensive Pipe, and Why You Paid So Much,” “Why Are So Many Pipes So Darn Expensive,” and “Most Expensive Pipes Ever Sold” shed little light on the topic.
What does it mean to be the most expensive, the costliest? I’ll start with a few brief definitions of expensive: high price or value; very high-priced; requiring a large expenditure; splendid, lavish. But how high is high? There is no right answer, because expensive is, well, subjective, a relative term! Behind everything we buy, there are hidden economic factors that help determine the price. It’s easy to determine what’s the most expensive car, because there are records of prices paid, whether at the dealer or on the auction block. The same is true for watches, but there are examples of custom-designed, specialty watches in the quantity of one; tracing their prices is a sportier course. As to pipes, Renia Carsillo, “Most Expensive Tobacco Pipe” (tobaccopipes.com) explains: “Many of today’s collectors see the hobby as much about acquiring as it is about smoking. By turning the hobby, more so than ever, into one similar to art collecting, prices often skyrocket for unique and/or obscure items. This trend can be positive, by allowing Handmade Pipes Like Rinaldos to find increasing patronage. It can also be negative, by driving up prices artificially when a new Sherlock Holmes or Lord of the Rings movie comes out.” I do not believe that “trends” is the singular driver; the phenomenon of “the most expensive” is much more complicated.
What are the measures of the merit for “the most expensive pipe”? How is it gauged? Is it determined by its age? Is it determined by the medium, e.g., briar, meerschaum, porcelain, etc.? Is it based on the realized price at a public auction, i.e., by how much someone paid? Is it solely, wholly, and totally in the eyes of the beholder, because it is a singular work from a well-known, respected pipe craftsman? Is it because it once belonged to a rich and famous person? Well, in 2017, Christie’s, London, sold an Albert Einstein briar billiard at a realized price of GBP 52,500 ($71,360); the House estimate was just GBP 5,000-8,000. Four years later, in September 2021, Remarkable Rarities, Boston, auctioned Einstein’s collection of nine rather ordinary briars and a wood pipe rack that were found in his Princeton, New Jersey, home sold for $125,000. High bidding in these two auctions was certainly not because these pipes were valuable, but because of name recognition. When Julien’s Auctions of Beverly Hills in June 2018 offered a lot of three briars from the estate of the comedian Jerry Lewis—a Dunhill Shell Briar with a 14-kt gold fitting (stamped B118 33), a K&P Tankard and a Chacom lady’s pipe, the House estimate was $200–$300; the winning bid was $640. Julien’s also sold the property of Hugh Hefner six months later; Lot 312 (of 838 lots of Hugh’s stuff) was an unbranded briar with the iconic Playboy rabbit logo embossed on the mouthpiece; the estimate was $2,000–$3,000. Would you believe a final price of $11,520? A year later, Julian’s was at it again, auctioning the Bilbo Baggins pipe that Ian Holm used in “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” that was estimated to fetch between $100,000 and $120,000; it sold for $28,200. Not bad considering that this prop was certainly not a briar, and it did not belong to anyone rich or famous, yet it exceeded Hugh’s briar by more than twice.
Many other examples illustrate the issue, so I address a few more of these “most expensive” pipes and how their value was determined. The very first comment in the Press about expensive pipes that I found was Arturo F. Gonzalez Jr.’s article, “It’s been done,” about the Guinness Book of Records (The Rotarian, July 1978): “The latest Guinness volume contains authenticated records concerning everything from the world’s most expensive pipe (an intricately carved Meerschaum, which sells in New York for $8,000…” This claim lacked specifics. Five years later, the illustration on the cover of the debut issue of Pipe Smoker, Spring 1983, was a Turkish meerschaum pipe carved from a single piece of meerschaum by Ismail Özel depicting an elaborate scene of Antony and Cleopatra and the god Pan, 11.5” h. and 20” l. It was the property of Irving Korn of Royal Meerschaum, San Marcos, California. In his obituary (TOB Magazine, September/October 2014) there is this explanation: “In the early ‘80s, ‘Irv’ was known for touring pipe shows and fairs with his popular and famous ‘world’s most expensive pipe,’ then valued at $15,000, and listed in the 1983 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.” He consigned the pipe to Racine & Laramie Ltd., Old Town San Diego, California; the asking price was $15,000, supposedly priced at about $5,000 below its appraised value. Geoffrey Mogilner, owner of Racine & Laramie, sold it to the Thackery Gallery, San Diego, for $13,500.
The Gallery shuttered in 1988, and the pipe’s disposition was unknown until it resurfaced on August 8, 2009 in the “August Great Estates Auction,” hosted by Rago Arts and Auction Center, Lambertsville, New Jersey; the estimate was $3,000-$5,000, and it sold for $3,000! It’s fair to say, 25 years later, it had lost its grandeur as “the world’s most expensive pipe.”
Another Turkish meerschaum pipe is mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records. In the 1978 issue: “The most expensive smoker’s pipe is an intricately carved meerschaum pipe, marketed by CAO Meerschaums of Nashville, Tennessee, which sells in New York City for $8,000.” The 1980 issue mentions a “Most Valuable Pipe,” … “flying horseman,” … “marketed in San Francisco for $10,000.” According to “Hot cigar and pipe hobby leads entrepreneur to prosperity” (Nashville Business Journal, May 10, 1998): “He [Ozgener, CEO of C.A.O. Inc.] has more than 1,000 pipes in his collection, including the famous Flying Dutchman pipe which appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records for years as the most expensive pipe in the world valued at $10,000.” Then, “’The Guinness Book of World Records’ lists the most valuable meerschaum pipe at $50,000, owned by Cano Ozgener, Jun 12, 2018” (eileenandmorgan.com). I could not find a picture of this pipe, and I cannot explain the disparity in price.
Let’s go back in time. The William Demuth Company of New York, the largest U.S. pipe manufacturer in the mid- to late 19th century. It commissioned the Columbus pipe, known as the “Discovery of America by Columbus,” for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 that took two years to make. It depicts Christopher Columbus claiming the new land for the Spanish empire, alongside his shipmates, a priest, and Native Americans (altogether, 21 high- and low-relief-carved figures), and measuring 33” l., including a very ornately crafted, sectional, multicolor amber mouthpiece. It is illustrated in the Demuth Spring 1932 catalog, described as “WDC. $50,000 Meerschaum Pipe,” and on one of its advertising postcards. This pipe may be familiar to you, because it is illustrated in Ehwa, The Book of Pipes & Tobacco.
Where is it today? The story is rather convoluted. The American Tobacco Company, Richmond, Virginia, acquired the Demuth collection of some 250 pipes, the “Half-and-Half Collection,” in 1940. In 1957, the collection was donated to the Valentine Museum in Richmond. After a fire in 1963, the collection was placed in storage. In 1991 the Museum sold it to Austria Tabak (AT), Vienna, Austria, adding to the AT Museum’s extensive collection of antiquarian pipes and related smoking utensils. The Columbus pipe was the centerpiece attraction in October 1992, when AT celebrated the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. In 2001, the AT Museum was shuttered and, in 2002, most of the museum’s inventory were auctioned; however, it retained a quantity of choice pipes and related artifacts. In 2009, to celebrate 225 years of AT—10 of which were now as a subsidiary of Japan Tobacco International (JTI)—Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) sponsored “Nicotiana. A Cultural History of Tobacco,” an exhibition with the Columbus pipe as the centerpiece once again. It’s never been stated as to how the original $50,000 valuation was derived, and it has not been offered for sale by JTI, so it’s impossible to know how much it could command today.
Another very famous antique meerschaum pipe is in private hands. It is the high-relief-carved Battle of Bunker Hill, after John Trumbull’s famous oil on canvas, “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775” (1786), carved by Gustav Fischer Sr., of Boston. It is a remarkable sculpture, a monumental two-pound, 33” l. work of art with 31 high-relief-carved figures, three American flags, and one British flag, a pipe carved over a period of four years; it was finished sometime in 1905. “Remarkable Skill Shown in Meerschaum Carving” (The Boston Traveler, December 22, 1906) placed a value of $40,000 on it. ($40,000 is equivalent to about $1.22 million today.) At a time in the 1990s, when asked if it were for sale, the owner, a descendant of Gustav, suggested $100,000 … knowing that there would be no willing takers. What would it command today? It could easily exceed $50,000, but would there be a buyer?
The bold, online statement: “Museum-grade antique meerschaum pipes go for $2,000 to $10,000” is nowhere near accurate—many fine-quality antique meerschaums can be had for far less than $2,000—and it is certainly not helpful guidance for any pipe collector, especially a neophyte. What follows is a real-world example from late 2020. This high-relief-carved meerschaum pipe, the “Marriage of Princes Louise in 1871,” attributed to Joseph Krammer, Vienna, c. 1871, 11” x 18,” was in the Alfred Dunhill Antique Pipe Collection. It was auctioned by Christie’s, London, in May 2004, with a realized price of 26,400 pounds (almost $50,000). Sixteen years later, it reappeared in a December 2020 auction at Piguet, Geneva, Switzerland. It sold for far less, 30,000 Swiss Francs (or $33,400), and I believe that there’s a reason. In the intervening years, the number of active, monied collectors of antique pipes has markedly shrunk, so frenetic antique pipe auction activity has declined commensurately. Visit Piguet to see many more eye-catching examples.
As an industry standard in the late 1800s, both here and in Europe, antique meerschaum pipes were most often fitted with an amber mouthpiece, or the meerschaum bowl might be adorned with amber beads, or the bowl’s wind cover might be amber, but solid amber pipes were a costly rarity to make. This William Demuth amber figural of a bull was in the earlier-mentioned Half-and-Half Pipe Collection, thence to the AT Museum, thence to auction to be purchased by a French collector and, after he died, to Geneva’s Piguet Auction in December 2020. Its realized price was 7,000 Swiss francs, or about $7,800. This pipe, for sure, is a true rarity and probably worth this price. It is, at present, “the most expensive” amber pipe.
If it’s an antique pipe case, not an antique pipe, then this is, unquestionably, the nonpareil pièce de resistance. “The Trevor Barton Collection of Unusual Smoking Pipes,” conducted by Christie’s, London, in September 2010, included “A FINE SINHALESE IVORY DOUBLE-PIPE CASE, SRI LANKA, 17TH CENTURY. The hinged end surmounted by a lion, the hasp and hinge in engraved brass, the body with applied pierced carved panels of foliage and on the reverse putti amongst foliage all over gilt foil or mica and a wood carcase, 21 inches long.” House estimate: GPB 8,000—12,000; realized price: an altogether unexpected GBP 51,650, or about $80,000! Someone wanted this accessory really, really badly.
Determining the most expensive wood pipe is another matter altogether. There are some accepted truths about briars, in particular, what sets them apart from mainstream pipe production. An article in the September 17, 1956 issue of Newsweek entitled “Pipe Dream” contained a photo of a Kaywoodie Presentation Collection, described as the “costliest pipe set ever marketed in the U.S.”: a walnut cabinet containing 31 pipes: 28 flawless, matched-grain briars, a carved briar, a meerschaum, and a Calabash, priced at $1,000. In the 1970s, Charatan’s top-of-the line Crown Achievement pipes were priced at $1,500, its seven-day sets were priced at $1,500. In the 1990s, some Jess Chonowitch briars sold for as much as $6,800.
Currently, this briar is the only one worthy of mention in this narrative. “Is this the Most Expensive Pipe — Ever?” was a Web post about a Ser Jacopo Gem Series Diamond/Brillante MaxMaxMaxMax, a quadruple (4X) Maxima designation that is virtually unknown. Straight grain encircles the bowl, and densely packed eyes at the top of the bowl are complemented by tightly packed birds-eye at the bottom of the bowl. The pipe has an 18-kt gold band, the trademark diamond set in an 18-kt gold setting mounted in the stem. The stamp, 03/2000, means that it was the third Gem Series Diamond produced in 2000. The 4 x Maxima stamp means that it is very large. “Fiammate” means that it is a straight grain. “Per Aspera ad Astra” is the Ser Jacopo motto that is stamped on all its pipes; this Latin phrase was the original motto of NASA. A retailer bought it at the RTDA show in San Antonio, Texas, in August, 2000, at a very insane price—just kidding—of $9,950.00, just shy of 10 grand. This one remains the most expensive, premier-quality briar pipe sold to date.
Then there’s the pipe that commands a high price at auction, because it’s a prop in popular movies and smoked by someone from central casting, such as Sherlock Holmes and his calabash, Gandalf and his churchwarden, and Bing Crosby and his trademark briar. The most recent example is from the 2004 movie “National Treasure.” If you saw it, you’d remember the pipe that was discovered in the frozen wreckage of the Charlotte, a ship that was supposedly lost in the Arctic. Made of resin—its dimensions were 10½” x 1½” x 3”—and made to look like distressed meerschaum, it was used as a key to unlock the ship’s treasure room. It was Lot 252 in London’s Entertainment Memorabilia auction in November 2021. Its estimate was £4,000–£6,000; its realized price: £55,000 plus buyer’s premium, £68,750, or about $90,000. This one-of-a-kind pipe—It’s certainly not for smoking—but the owner has legitimate bragging rights, because it was a centerpiece in a movie that was seen worldwide.
Dunhill has been known for producing some rarities, such as the unusual Namiki “Two Carps” pipe, only 25 of which were produced in 2016. You can still buy one for about 20,000 Euros ($23,000). Far more fascinating is Dunhill’s extraordinary, one-of-a-kind Eiffel Tower pipe, designed by product director, Kalmon Hener, manufactured in 2015. The bowl is carved from a single block of flawless briar, the tower hand-cut from sheets of 18kt gold and embellished with 492 diamonds, 140 sapphires, 20 rubies, and a cornflower-blue 3.75-carat Sri Lankan sapphire. A cabinet decorated with an inlaid image of workers building the Eiffel Tower contains the pipe and five rare books about the Paris landmark, including volumes commissioned by Gustave Eiffel in 1900. Read more about this creature at “Extremely Limited Edition Pipes: One of One. The White Spot Eiffel Tower Pipe” (alpascia.com), and Richard Hacker, “Design Portfolio: This Is Not a Pipe,” (robbreport.com). The price is only $3.5 million. Any takers?
If I had to identify a pipe that ought to be considered “the most expensive,” it would be this multi-tiered, meerschaum table pipe made by F. J. Kaldenberg, New York, as a show piece for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. It is 28” h., with four hookah mouthpieces, and four freestanding meerschaum figures representing agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, and navigation, accompanied by cherubs representing music, painting, literature, and sculpture. At the top is Columbia representing power, justice, and liberty. The international jury awarded Kaldenberg the only award for American-made meerschaum goods. Its whereabouts has never been revealed. Regardless, it is the centerpiece of centerpieces, the absolute best of breed, the crème de la crème of pipes! Should it reappear for sale like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it’ll be pure hell at the auction block, because it’s beyond being a pipe. It’s an extravagantly creative work of art that will undoubtedly appeal to an appreciative global audience that’s much larger than the entire community of pipe collectors.
Now I turn to a different sort of pipe for sale. In 2017, the Russian company Bon-Cadeau created The Smoking Dragon, a pipe that is also a luxurious piece of jewelry, priced at $85,000. It is embellished with 47 black and white diamonds, 38 rubies and six sapphires. It also has a piece of blue Coral and four tiger eyes and tourmalines. It weighs 300 grams, 275 grams of which are silver and 22 grams of gold. It rotates on a rack of jade, while the dragon’s mouth and wings simultaneously open with a quick press. This pipe was surely targeted to that segment of society that lives extravagantly, sumptuously, indulgently. Luxury Launches declared it “the most expensive smoking pipe in the world”! It certainly has the most expensive price tag for a pipe, but it is not and will not be the most expensive pipe unless/until someone buys it at this asking price. Four years have passed without a buyer, perhaps because of its price, or perhaps because of its outré design. Would a pipe aficionado enjoy smoking an all-metal pipe, no matter how bejeweled? Methinks not!
Although not designed for tobacco, the Chinese opium pipe is, nevertheless, a pipe, so I include the always-unpredictable, outrageous prices paid for these pipes at auction. The most recent sale of a pricey opium pipe occurred in May, 2021. In Bellman’s Fine Art Auctioneers (UK) “Interiors-Old Master, British and European Paintings, Asian Works of Art,” this 19th-century Famille rose opium pipe with an estimate of only £1,000–£1,500 realized a surprising £20,000, or about $27,250.
For a broader view of the tobacco industry, here are a few similar marketing and merchandising efforts. In 2006, British American Tobacco introduced a limited-edition, 18-kt white-gold pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes with an appended large diamond and ruby with an asking price of $100,000; it was on display at major European airports throughout that year. Bizarre is the fact that a half-finished cigar measuring four inches, attributed to Winston Churchill, bearing a “La Corona/ Winston Churchill” Habana label, was on the auction block … twice. Expected to be sold for about for about £800 at a West Sussex auction in 2010, it realized £4,500 ($6,130). The stub reappeared in 2017 in Boston’s RR Auctions—the same auction that sold the lot of Einstein’s briar pipes—and this time, it realized $12,262. Who would’a thunk it? The Gurkha Cigar Group, Florida, known for luxury cigars, has the reputation for shocking the cigar world. In 2007, it sold five limited-edition boxes of His Majesty’s Reserve cigars, infused with a vintage Louis XIII Cognac, for $125,000 a box; each box contained 100 cigars. One box was auctioned in 2012 for $658,000 and it entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive box of cigars ever sold. In 2020, Gurkha offered a gold-leaf-wrapped, diamond-studded Gurkha Royal Courtesan—just one—priced at $1,000,000 … luxurious opulence personified. Read what Charles Beuck reported about the Gurkha Royal Courtesan at medium.com. Last, in 2015, the Scandinavian Tobacco Group unveiled Master Blender Lasse Berg’s limited-edition W.Ø. Larsen hand-pressed pipe tobacco at 900€ per kilo (2.20 pounds). In 2015, the € was about $1.09. That works out to be $981 for 35.2 ounces, or about $28/ounce, a hefty price to pay for a few packed pipe bowls.
What prompts these high—some might say outrageous—prices? Is it the snob appeal? Bragging rights, a temporary ascendancy in a closely contested rivalry? Stephen Potter’s one-upmanship to best an opponent? The desire to be the only person to own a one-of-a-kind, unique pipe? Or just hyperbole for the sake of hyperbole? In The Soverane Herbe, W. A. Penn wrote: “Our grandfathers highly valued their meerschaums. Collections of finely-coloured and carved pipes were made, as much as £500 being paid for a fine specimen.” That was in 1901! More than 120 years later, Dr. Anthony Cavo, “Establishing Meerschaum Pipe Value” (antiquetrader.com) states: “A meerschaum pipe’s material and carving are the most important factors when determining what it’s worth.” The late antique-pipe collector Frank Burla had often said that pipes with historical value are the most valuable, especially if it belonged to a king or an emperor, and some could be worth as much as $100,000; it’s true that documented provenance weighs heavily as a determinant in valuation. But the proof of being the most expensive of anything is the sold price, not the selling price—and certainly not the appraised price—when compared with like objects sold during the same timeframe. Maybe the question should be: “What’s it really worth?” The costliest of anything is by comparing one thing to every other like thing. Like all things valuable, it depends on many factors: a maker’s mark; condition; rarity; age; expert advice; authenticity; desirability; market influences; and comparable value. Stephen Roach explains value better that I can: “What determines value?” (stephenroach.org).
One way to look at this phenomenon is to understand the discrete differences among price, value, and worth. Price is the amount of money in payment for something. Value is the maximum amount of money a person is willing and able to pay for a good or service. Value is also determined by supply, demand and desirability. Worth is the value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem in which it is held. In these several examples the prices paid indicate that the buyers believed that what they bought was worth the price. But records are meant to be broken—they’re ephemeral—and it’s just a matter of time before a new, record-high price for a pipe—antique, vintage, or newly-minted—will be crowned as “the most expensive pipe.”
Two final thoughts, the first of which should be obvious to everyone. Claims of “the most expensive” pipe circulate in the public domain, most recently on the Web, accessible to anyone with a computer or a smartphone. A public pipe auction’s realized prices are certainly concrete evidence of what bidders paid, but the House, by convention, does not normally reveal the buyer’s name. And I know that many private transactions have and will continue to occur between a pipe seller and a pipe buyer, particularly among European collectors, where both parties want to keep it that way for obvious reasons. Therefore, the pipe world may never know if there was/is/will be “the most expensive” pipe, unless such discreet transactions become public knowledge. The second thought is that, as a student of pipe history and a Web watcher on the lookout for unusual and interesting pipe stories, I believe that the topic of “the most expensive pipe” will never get much traction among collectors, no matter how much someone paid. It’s a fad that has little to no fanatic following.