Reader asks about Zippo lighter
  • One collector’s love affair with novelty cigarette lighters
  • Lighting up your home at the right price
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    Auction Finds

    Lighting up with Zippo

    The man brought in several boxes of lighters, the auctioneer told me, because his collection had become overwhelming. “You know how it is from coming here,” he reminded me, and I understood. I’ve gone to auctions long enough to know that the stuff you collect can overtake you.

    The collector brought in about 300 lighters, most still in their Zippo tins and paper boxes, still sealed with the orange label on the back. The auctioneer had found them selling for $40 to $50 each on the web, and figured that he could get at least $20 per lighter at auction.

    This collection of Beatles Zippo lighters sold for $180.

    And that’s just about what he averaged in an auction of the lighters this week. They filled two long cases with three shelves each, side by side, not a speck of dust on them. Practically all were from the 1990s, some were parts of a series, and few were duplicates.

    Just looking at the long rows and rows of them was taxing. I stood there trying to make out the engravings when an auction-house employee recalled that her father, too, had collected lighters (and trains). She has them in storage, she said, and had never bothered to count them; the task was probably too big to even think about.

    Zippo, according to one site, is one of the most collectible lighters in the world. The name is as common as Bic was 30 years ago with its “Flick my Bic” slogan, but more sustained. I don’t collect lighters but I have picked up a few Zippos at auction. I’m usually looking for the older ones – the four barrels and any others made before the 1950s. I came across several once that included a golfer, fisherman and hunter engraved in splashes of color.

    On the web, you’ll find sites selling new and old lighters, and offering guides on how to determine the date of your Zippo. There’s also a Zippo/Case Museum in Bradford, PA, home of the company’s founding in 1932 by George G. Blaisdell.


    Rows of Zippo lighters waiting to be sold.

    Here are a few things I learned about Zippo:

    Starting in 1943, Zippo made lighters solely for US troops, who used them in various ways for survival. War correspondent Ernie Pyle noted, “Getting hold of a Zippo is like getting hold of a hunk of gold. … There is truly nothing the average soldier would rather have.” When Pyle was killed by a sniper in 1945 on an island near Okinawa, Zippo sent lighters engraved with “In Memory of Ernie Pyle 1945” to the crew of the ship he was with.

    Zippo lighters are still fixed for free at a Repair Clinic at the museum.

    A Zippo Car lighter from 2001. It sold for $11.

    In 1947, a Chrysler Saratoga two-passenger Coupe was converted into a Zippo Car to celebrate the company in parades and other events across the country. The vehicle was retrofitted with two huge lighters and the word “Zippo” on the sides. The company handed out Zippo Car lighters at appearances.

    Bell Kogan, among the country’s first female industrial designers, created intricate designs for Zippo around 1938-1939.

    Zippo novelty lighters. The top tray sold for $6. The gun lighters sold for $18.

    The Lady Bradford table lighter was introduced in 1950 and discontinued in 1951. I’d like to find one of those.

    A Lucy & Desi lighter was made in 1955, and the Lady Bradford appeared as a gift to Fred and Ethel in a 1954 episode.

    The peace symbol lighter of 1970 was popular.

    If you were a collector and didn’t mind the new stuff, this auction was the place to be. Only a handful of buyers were in the room, but others were on the phone and most of the sales seemed to go to them. The collection consisted of just about any lighter you could think of – from wolves to Dale Earnhardt to the Titanic to the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey. Some went for less than $10.

    The auctioneer had placed his highest estimate of $100 to $150 on a lighter that sold for only $16. It was a 1997 H.J. Bailey Co. and Zippo 65th anniversary lighter in a wooden box, #95 in a limited edition of 100. The company sells lighters, tobacco products and more.

    The lighter that sold the most was the Beatles Album Series Collector’s Edition from 1997. It was a six-piece set with names of songs on the back of each. The lighters were in pristine condition and still had the cardboard box. The set sold for $180.

    “This is not a Zippo collector,” the auctioneer noted of the phone bidder. “This is a Beatles collector.”

    Here are some of the higher bids:

    Zippo: A Remembrance, World War II, Volume 1, 1995, four-piece lighter and key chain set, $90.

    Zippo Pinup Girls lighters, set of four.

    Pinup Girls, 1996, four-piece four-seasons set, $65

    Beatles Collection #254, BBTL 493 Anthology, 1997, $45

    2 Zippo Lucky Strike Girls, 1998 and 1999, $50 and $55, respectively.

    Those two political lighters?

    The Republican lighter sold first, for $20. When the Democratic lighter came up, bidding was slow. When the bidding lingered at $16, the auctioneer joked that perhaps there were more Reps than Dems in the room. Instantly, the bidding jumped to $25, at which price the lighter sold.


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