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Lighting the World on Fire

Lighting the World on Fire

Collectible and Novelty Lighters in Rago’s April Unreserved Auctions

29 March 2017

The drying and smoking of the leaves of the tobacco plant can be traced to the indigenous people of the Americas. Native Americans, including the Aztecs and Mayans, inhaled the smoke of this native plant for social and ceremonial purposes. The practice was brought back to Europe by early explorers and by the 18th C. tobacco had become a leading export from the new continent and a wildly popular (if terribly unhealthy) indulgence for millions of people across the globe.

While the world has been ‘lighting up’ for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that developments in technology made possible the mass production and distribution of pocket and tabletop lighters. These lighters, whether elegant or novelty, reflect the aesthetics, history, and trends of their time, highlighting both the glamour and kitsch of post-World War I culture and style.

Rago’s upcoming Unreserved Auction on April 7-8 presents an extensive array of these lighters, from pocket to figural, including works by Ronson, Dunhill, Tiffany, Cartier and more.

Lot 352. Fifteen Art Deco combination lighter/cigarette cases, Marathon, Ronson, Etc. Mid 20th C. Est $300-400.


Ronson began making pocket lighters in 1913. Originally founded in Newark, NJ in 1897 as The Art Metal Project, Ronson made a name for itself producing quality lamps, inkwells and hood ornaments, all prized for their detailed metalwork. In 1926, Ronson released the first automatic operation lighter – the “Banjo” – which offered both ignition and extinguishment in a single push. These lighters were marketed with the tag, “A flip – and it’s lit! Release – and it’s out!” By the 1930’s companies all over the world were expanding on Ronson’s technology, creating pocket and figural table lighters in endless permutations of shape, size and material.

Lot 330. Ronson A45-29 Bartender Series lighter. 1950’s. Est $700-900.


While Ronson was innovating lighter technology in America, Alfred Dunhill of England was cultivating his own patents. In 1907 his company, Dunhill, patented the “windshield pipe” - developed to keep wind from extinguishing a pipe flame while smoking in open-topped motor vehicles. In 1956, the company developed the world’s first butane gas lighters, dubbed Rollagas. By 1962 the Dunhill name had become synonymous with luxury and the company was contracted to design lavish accessories for the James Bond films, including a gunmetal cigarette lighter for Sean Connery’s character in the film that started it all, Dr. No.

Lot 337. Airplane figural lighters by Dunhill, Etc. including two Dunhill F86’s. Est $400-600.


The early and mid-20th century saw continued development of lighter technology as well as advancements in the design and aesthetic of these new ‘luxury’ products. Against the backdrop of the Art Deco Movement, high-end designers began selling their own table and desk lighter designs. An exquisite example can be found in Lot 483, which includes two sterling silver lighters from Tiffany & Co., as well as a matching three piece smoking set from Cartier. Made of fine malachite, the three piece set was manufactured in Italy and includes a lighter, ashtray and cigarette case. All pieces are marked.

Lot 483. Two Silver Tiffany lighters with three-piece Malachite Cartier smoking set. Est $500-700.


In time, companies around the world began manufacturing designs accessible to all buyers, fashioned from affordable materials. In some cases, clocks were added to the lighters, or lighters were built into cigarette and cigar cases. Novelty lighters became instantly popular and were brought to market in every shape imaginable - from animals, globes and typewriters to helicopters, grenades and trains.
Lot 465 presents a brilliant example of a figural, centerpiece lighter made from unconventional materials. Fashioned out of English silverplate, a dragon form is mounted on the horn of an Ibex, giving him a long and curly tail.

Lot 465. English Silverplate Dragon form cigar lighter. Mid 20th C. Est $300-500.

Owing to the variety of motifs and materials utilized, these figural and pocket lighters have become highly prized cross-collectibles. Whether you find yourself drawn to the gilded opulence of the Art Deco era or to the quaint naughtiness of mid-century pin-up culture, there is something for everyone in Rago’s Unreserved Auction on April 7 and 8.

View more lighters, as well as art and design spanning continents and centuries, in the online catalog for our April Unreserved Auctions, here.