The rewarding smell of a stash of cigars
The auction-house regular was telling me about his place in Panama where he sold items for prices he couldn’t get in this country. As I listened, I was momentarily interrupted by a waft of tobacco smoke that had weaved its way into our presence.
Seated on the edge of the dock just to the left of us, a grossly overweight man was puffing on a stogie. He didn’t seem to care that the smoke was disturbing us; he was caught up in his own enjoyment.
I waved the smoke away from my nostrils and we moved away, our conversation thwarted. Right then, an auction-house staffer called him away (he was one of the inside auctioneers), and I returned to my walk-through along the ramp at the back of the auction house. The ground beyond the ramp was too muddy and messy for me to venture a look at the box lots on a long double row of tables opposite the ramp.
So I headed inside. I had combed through boxes on several tables when I walked smack into a large stash of cigars. Had the man outside commandeered one of these, I wondered.
Most of the cigars were still in wrappers, some stuffed inside plastic bags and small clear plastic tubs. Inside a two-tier wood grain laminated humidor were loads of others. There were wooden and aluminum cigar boxes (most empty), cigar paraphernalia and pipes propped on a rack and on an inlaid wooden box.
Their bands bore such names as Don Tamos, Romeo y Julieta, CAO Cameroon, Hampton Court, Upmann, A. Fuentes, Punch (in a capsule), Perdomo, Cohiba.
It was a smoker’s dream – if the cigars were still any good. As I handled a few, I found that they were rather hard and dry.
The stash drew many onlookers; it wasn’t a sight that many of us had seen often at auction. Humidors come up regularly but usually not with cigars in them. As I stood there, a woman walked up and couldn’t resist making reference to the dangers of smoking. “He probably died,” she said, “from all the cigars.”
I assumed the cigars were one man’s collection, but another auction-goer offered another perspective: “It’s a damn shame,” he said. “They probably came from a cigar store. No one person would have this many cigars. They’d have cancer.”
These days, cigar smoking seems more romantic and acceptable than cigarettes. The various cancer societies warn, though, that they are just as potent and harmful. One large cigar can equal a pack of cigarettes, according to the American Cancer Society website. And don’t forget the second-hand smoke that the man on the ramp was sending out to us.
I don’t know much about cigars, but I do know that there are plenty of folks who do love and keep them for their pleasure – the premium ones, of course. Some of history’s most influential men have been cigar smokers, including Winston Church of England, President John F. Kennedy of the United States and Fidel Castro of Cuba – indicating cigars’ universal appeal.
Cigar aficionados have their own magazines, their own cigar bars, cigar reviews and tons of places to buy them online. Novices can go straight to the web to learn how to smoke a cigar without looking inept. There apparently is a method to it (don’t overthink it, a professional advised, and use matches, not a Zippo lighter).
Some years ago, I lived and worked in a city where cigars were once hand made and the industry thrived: Tampa, FL. Cigar-making got started in the city in 1885 when Vicente Martinez Ybor, who had emigrated from Cuba some years before, opened what was said to be the largest cigar factory in an area near Tampa that became known as Ybor City.
Ybor was joined by other cigar makers, and they made Tampa and Ybor City the cigar capital of the world in the early 20th century. Workers produced millions of Havanas a year. Some cigars are still made in Ybor City, but the area is most known now for its trendy restaurants, bars, art galleries and shops.
The workers in Ybor City were immigrants who had rolled cigars by hand in their native Cuba, whose cigars were considered (and still are by some) to be the best in the world. When President Kennedy banned exports from Cuba in 1962, he cut off the supply to American smokers – but not altogether to himself.
On the night before he issued the ban, his press secretary Pierre Salinger said, Kennedy sent him out to buy some Cuban cigars. Salinger bought him 1,200 Petit Upmanns and gave them to him the next morning. Kennedy signed the embargo, his own cigars secure but blocking Salinger and others like him who loved their Cubans, too. Cuban cigars are still banned in this country.
At the auction, I watched as one man took the time to test the cigars by pressing them, schooling another auction-goer next to him. “Why buy these,” someone asked incredulously, obviously wondering why anyone would waste their money. “If you get 15 percent that are good,” the man said, “you’d make money.”
He picked up cigar after cigar, tested it and affixed a price that it would bring: 1 cent, 50 cents, $20. Several in metal cases were deemed “good.” He picked up one in the shape of a torpedo: “They’re called torpedos,” he said.
To his would-be apprentice, he added, “there are maybe 40 that are smokeable.”
“If you see someone smoking and you see fire coming out, it’s called cigar fizz,” he instructed. “You don’t want that. It’s a bad cigar.” (I don’t know if that was true; I wasn’t able to verify it via Google.)
“You gave me an education,” the would-be apprentice said. “I was at another auction with cigars and a humidor and I didn’t know what I was looking at.”
I had a question for him: “Aren’t those better inside the humidor?” “No, the temperature gauge is missing,” he said, pointing to the round circular piece on the top inside panel (I hadn’t noticed that it was missing). He found it inside the box under the avalanche of cigars and reattached it.
When the cigars came up for bids, the auctioneer sold each set of items individually, with two bidders going at it. Here’s what the items sold for:
2 plastic bags of cigars and lighter, $300
Humidor filled with cigars, $200
Plastic tote bin loaded with cigars, $130
2 cigar boxes, one with cigars, $40
Aluminum cases and cigar boxes, $5 to $17.50
10 pipes with a stand, $45
Wooden inlaid box with pipe stand, $30
2 boxes of lighters/clippers/nippers, $17.50
Nipper/humidity tester, $7.50
Cigar holder/ashtray, $5