Here is an example of a typical vintage cigar or cheroot holder, circa late 19th or early 20th century. This specimen is either made from amber or an early plastic like Bakelite or Galalith. The original, fitted case significantly enhances the investment desirability of the piece.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It compels us to look fondly backward to a time in our life when things were simpler or better. Sometimes we can even be nostalgic for a time and place that we never experienced personally, like the cultural golden ages of pre-World War I Vienna or 1920s Paris. And few antiques are able to elicit nostalgia for bygone times, both experienced and imagined, like vintage cigarette holders. These luxury trappings were invariably at the fingertips of the wealthy, powerful and famous throughout the 20th century, allowing them to unapologetically smoke a cigarette and look great doing it.
A cigarette holder is a small, hollow, tubular device used as an intermediary between the smoker and his (or her) cigarette. Often made from the most precious materials available, vintage cigarette holders were objets d'art par excellence for the fashionable smoker. They embodied the highest principals of functional luxury for the liberated woman or urbane man during the first half of the 20th century.
The discerning gentleman who preferred to relax with the occasional cigar was not forgotten, however. Cigar holders, just as luxurious as their cigarette holder brethren, were also widely used from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th century. In fact, this tobacco paraphernalia was almost a requirement in gentlemen's clubs, billiard rooms and studies - anyplace men of refinement might gather to enjoy a leisurely cigar.
These personal tobacco accessories, the cigar holder and the cigarette holder, served two main purposes. First, they prevented nicotine staining of the fingers or gloves. If the cigarette holder contained a filter, a fairly common occurrence before the advent of filtered cigarettes, it would also help minimize any staining of the teeth. Second, a cigarette holder kept second hand smoke out of its users face. This was particularly helpful in social situations, like formal dinners, high society parties or the opera.
Cigarette smoking and, by extension, the use of cigarette holders, was a quintessentially 20th century affair. At the beginning of the century, in 1900, it is estimated that only 4% or 5% of tobacco users were cigarette smokers. All the others smoked cigars, pipes or used snuff. But that statistic changed rapidly during the first decades of the new century.
Vintage Cigar & Cheroot Holders For Sale
The First World War, from 1914 to 1918, drove widespread adoption of cigarettes by men in the armed services all over the globe. Most belligerent countries during these conflicts, including Great Britain, Germany and the U.S., handed out cigarettes as part of their troops' weekly ration packages. The Second World War merely reinforced this trend, firmly establishing cigarettes as the preeminent tobacco product. These two global conflicts, perhaps more than anything else, helped popularize and normalize smoking during the 20th century.
While pipe, cigar and cigarette smoking were originally considered a distinctly masculine pastime, women's desire for liberation in the modern era led to their increased interest in smoking. Although regarded as unseemly and unladylike at the beginning of the 20th century, smoking also held an allure of illicitness via its association with jazz music, prohibition era drinking, underground gambling and even promiscuity. Indeed, it was the iconic female "flappers" of the rebellious 1920s who finally changed societal perceptions, legitimizing cigarette usage among women. Naturally, with increased smoking among women came the use of elegant and chic cigarette holders.
Smoking's popularity reached its zenith in the middle of the 20th century, from the 1940s to the 1960s. During this period, almost everyone from the humblest housewife to the most powerful politician indulged in a relaxing cigarette occasionally. And the eye-catching, portable and ever stylish cigarette holder was omnipresent.
Old Hollywood starlets, in particular, have given us countless iconic images showing bejeweled cigarette holders languorously hanging from their lips. Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Rita Hayworth were just a few of the acclaimed celebrities from Old Hollywood to smoke cigarettes, usually with a magnificent cigarette holder.
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Some other famous smokers of the era were 007 creator Ian Fleming, musician Nat King Cole and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Even rebellious royalty luxuriated in smoking during this period. Great Britain's Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, was, scandalously, a smoker from her teenage years. But she often burnished her defiance through the glamorous use of high end cigarette holders.
In 1961 the celebrated movie Breakfast at Tiffany's was released. This notable film featured the famous actress Audrey Hepburn portraying Holly Golightly, a young, sophisticated New York debutante who sported a trademark long cigarette holder. This character perhaps best exemplifies the apogee of mid-century cigarette culture and its indispensible companion, the cigarette holder.
However, during the 1960s and 1970s, more and more medical evidence began to point to the dangers of smoking. The resulting decline in tobacco use was slow at first, and many beautiful and functional cigarette holders were created during this time. But, inexorably, smoking gradually became associated with cancer, emphysema and other terrible diseases. By the early 1980s, cigarette use in the West was dying, and with it the need for glamorous cigarette holders. An era had ended.
Vintage cigarette holders were made from a wide range of different materials, from the unassuming to the opulent. Amber, the fossilized resin of ancient trees, was one of the most common materials used. Another substance frequently encountered is tortoiseshell which originates from the carapace of large turtle and tortoise species like the hawksbill sea turtle. Ivory, with its warm tones and creamy, off-white color was also popular. The simple, black elegance of jet, a gem quality coal, was, likewise, a favorite material for vintage cigarette holders.
Amber Vintage Cigarette Holders For Sale
All of these prized natural materials were imitated by early plastics starting in the late 19th and early 20th century. The very first of these, celluloid, was occasionally used in the production of cigarette and cigar holders, but was discontinued as soon as other plastics became available due to its flammability. Casein formaldehyde, called Galalith, was another early synthetic plastic used in vintage cigarette holders. But perhaps the best known of all the early plastics was Bakelite, the trade name for phenol formaldehyde resin.
High quality vintage cigarette holders were often accented with the precious metals - gold, silver, or platinum. This would usually take the form of one or more simple bands near the middle or the tip of the cigarette holder. Vintage cigarette or cigar holders were even created from semi-precious stones like jade, lapis or agate, although this was less common.
Vintage cigarette holders were frequently made out of a combination of several different materials. In these cases, the organic gem materials and plastics mentioned before were reserved for the stem of the piece that would be held in the mouth. This is because these materials were thermally non-conductive and would keep the user from accidentally being burnt.
While humble cigarette holders that sold for less than a dollar were manufactured in profusion, the most desirable specimens today were produced by famous makers. Renowned luxury houses, such as Cartier, Buccellati, Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany & Co. and Boucheron, created some of the most sumptuous examples. But the famous Russian jewelry firm of Faberge is celebrated as perhaps the greatest maker of luxury antique cigar and cigarette holders.
A special mention is in order for Alfred Dunhill, a noted English tobacconist who founded the eponymous firm of Alfred Dunhill Ltd. While his company started as a generalist British luxury goods company, it soon developed a sterling reputation as a purveyor of fine tobacco accessories, including cigarette and cigar holders. Dunhill vintage cigarette holders were made to the highest standard, as evidenced by the fact that the company received a Royal Warrant as the tobacconist to the Prince of Wales in 1921. Alfred Dunhill Ltd. cigarette and cigar holders can often be identified at a glance by their characteristic "white dot" trademark.
High quality materials are a must when looking to invest in vintage cigarette holders. Precious metals like gold, silver and platinum, are often found on high end specimens. Other precious materials like tortoise shell, amber, ivory or jade are also usually indicative of a high quality cigarette holder.
High End Vintage Cigarette Holders For Sale
Early plastics, like Bakelite, have a neutral impact on the value of vintage cigarette holders. Instead, it is the workmanship and any accompanying materials that determine the item's desirability. A simple antique cigarette holder made entirely from Bakelite will possess limited desirability, while a sumptuously crafted Bakelite specimen accented with gold and diamonds will be quite valuable.
Condition, of course, is an attribute of primary importance when investing in vintage cigarette holders. Modest wear, usually in the form of light tooth marks, is completely acceptable on the stem of an antique cigarette holder. This indicates it was used and treasured by a former owner. But cracks, chips, significant discoloration or other noticeable damage will greatly reduce the value of a piece. In addition, a vintage cigarette or cigar holder that comes in its original case is always more desirable than one that doesn't.
A compelling collection of vintage cigarette or cigar holders can be assembled for a surprisingly small investment. Relatively modest specimens start at just under $100, while more elaborate examples are usually just a few hundred dollars. Interestingly, even the finest pieces rarely go for more than $1,000, which allows disciplined connoisseurs to dabble in the high end cheaply. One need not smoke to admire a fine vintage cigarette holder or antique cigarette case. These luxury goods from yesteryear give both the aspiring tobacciana collector and objet d'art aficionado a window into a splendid, nostalgic past.
Here is a superb example of a 2006 one troy ounce U.S. Gold Buffalo coin. Although not traditionally considered collectors' pieces, modern gold bullion coins that possess strong designs and low mintages will inevitably become favorites of the numismatic community.
Perfection is a something that most of us have chased at one time or another. Unfortunately, perfection is a notoriously fickle thing. Almost everything in the world has its quirks or flaws. Regardless of how great your mobile phone might have seemed at the wireless dealer, once you've used it for a month, you know its shortcomings. Likewise, your late-model car may look great from a distance, but get up close and the ugly little scratches and dents become all too visible. Even our interpersonal relationships have their warts, rarely achieving the ideals that we initially envision for them.
However, there is one thing in life where perfection isn't just possible, but is practically mandatory - gold bullion coins. These paragons of tangible wealth nearly transcend the material world in their quest for absolute perfection. Struck by the most well-respected government mints from around the world, these internationally recognized bullion pieces are minted from the very purest gold, using the very latest industrial processes. Free from even the smallest of blemishes, gold bullion coins embody the ideal of physical perfection. In a world of digital crypto-currencies and virtual offshore accounts, gold bullion coins are pristine, physical treasure that you can hold in the palm of your hand.
Collecting gold bullion coins offers the aspiring numismatic connoisseur a lot of advantages over collecting older coins. First, bullion coins are made out of gold, giving them an immediate cachet that more pedestrian coinage lacks. And these masterpieces in gold are also usually struck in a variety of sizes to accommodate every budget. Governments mint everything from small, but affordable 1/20 troy ounce gold bullion coins right up to impressively hefty one troy ounce examples.
Another overlooked benefit of gold bullion coins is that there are rarely any key or rare dates. This puts a complete collection of most bullion series within the reach of the average collector. This contrasts markedly with traditional coin collecting, where ultra-expensive key dates often render complete sets unrealistic.
Finally, the monetary risk of collecting gold bullion coins is generally quite limited because most of what you are paying for is bullion value. Under normal circumstances, high quality, collector-oriented gold bullion coins with substantial numismatic potential can be purchased for a modest 5% to 25% over spot. Even for very rare pieces, the premiums are rarely more than 50% over spot.
The Mexican Libertad is one of these great gold bullion coin bargains. In fact, I view it as the hidden investment sleeper of the gold bullion coin world. Struck intermittently from 1981 until the present, gold Libertads come in one troy ounce, 1/2 ounce, 1/4 ounce, 1/10 ounce and 1/20 ounce sizes. From 1981 until 1988 the Mexican gold Libertad series was struck in 0.900 fine gold, but starting in 1991 the composition was changed to pure 24 karat gold.
The gold Libertad obverse features Mexico City's famous Angel of Independence statue in the foreground flanked by the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl in the background. Mexico's national emblem, a golden eagle tearing apart a rattlesnake while sitting atop a cactus, graces the reverse. Libertad gold coins underwent a redesign in the year 2000. Although the major design elements were not changed, they were updated to a more modern aesthetic.
The Mexican Libertad is one of the lowest mintage regular issue gold bullion coins available in the market today. Excluding the first year of production, when mintages were significantly higher, the one troy ounce Libertad gold bullion coin has averaged less than 15,000 specimens per annum. As shockingly low as this number might seem, the mintages on the gold Libertad fractional coins are even lower. Gold Libertad proofs have the lowest mintages at all, with numbers struggling to reach the four-figure mark in many cases.
Mexican Libertad Gold Bullion Coins For Sale
The Australian Gold Nugget/Kangaroo is another great bullion series for the aspiring collector or investor. First minted in 1986, the Nugget/Kangaroo features a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse. The reverse featured famous Australian gold nuggets for the first three years of production before switching over to kangaroos, hence the reason the series is commonly called the Nugget/Kangaroo. As an added incentive for investors, the kangaroo design on the reserve is altered every year to increase collector interest.
Minted in pure gold, the Australian Gold Nugget/Kangaroo has been struck in sizes ranging from the monstrous 1 kilogram (32.15 troy ounces) coin to the diminutive 1/20 of a troy ounce (1.56 grams) coin. Mintages have generally been modest, with the 1 troy ounce gold Nugget/Kangaroo averaging only 152,000 specimens every year from 1986 to 2016. The maximum mintage was 2013 when just over 341,000 examples were coined.
Australian Kangaroo/Nugget Gold Bullion Coins For Sale
China's entry in the global gold bullion coin competition, the Chinese Panda, was first issued in 1982. Struck from 99.9% pure gold, Chinese Panda coins feature Beijing's famed 15th century Taoist Temple of Heaven on the front. The back has a depiction of a Chinese giant panda in a natural setting that is redesigned every year.
From the series' inception in 1982 until 2015, Pandas were struck in 1 troy ounce, 1/2 ounce, 1/4 ounce, 1/10 ounce and 1/20 ounce sizes. However, starting in 2016, the Chinese authorities decided to embrace the metric system. As a result, more recent Chinese gold Panda coins have been issued in 30 gram, 15 gram, 8 gram, 3 gram and 1 gram sizes.
Chinese Pandas are some of the most popular modern gold bullion coins with collectors due to their attractive designs and quintessentially Chinese cultural themes. In addition, mintages have been very limited for a bullion issue, with 1 troy ounce pieces averaging an annual mintage of less than 60,000 annually from 1982 through 2006. Due to their perennial popularity, the Chinese government increased mintage numbers modestly starting in 2007.
Chinese Panda Gold Bullion Coins For Sale
The final gold bullion coin I want to showcase is the American Buffalo. These .9999 fine pure gold coins feature an adaptation of the acclaimed U.S. Buffalo Nickel, which was originally minted between 1913 and 1938. The U.S. Buffalo gold coin has original artist James Earle Fraser's iconic Indian head bust on the obverse and his powerful rendition of a wild bison on the reverse.
Unlike most other gold bullion series, the U.S. Gold Buffalo is a relative newcomer, having only premiered in 2006. American Gold Buffaloes are also the first coins the U.S. mint ever struck from pure, unalloyed gold. With the exception of 2008, when 1/2, 1/4 and 1/10 ounce pieces were also struck, the mint has made the curious decision to issue the coins in only one denomination - the one troy ounce size.
Mintages for U.S. Gold Buffaloes are surprisingly low for a popular U.S. bullion series. Except for the first year of issue, 2006, one troy ounce pieces have averaged just over 225,000 minted every year. These mintages include both uncirculated bullion coins and proof collector coins. These numbers are exceptionally low compared to its counterpart program, the American Gold Eagle bullion series, which has averaged over 600,000 one troy ounce coins per year.
U.S. Buffalo Gold Bullion Coins For Sale
For those collectors who are looking for even more exclusive gold bullion coins, the U.S. mint recently released a set of three very special issues. These bullion pieces borrow iconic U.S. coin designs from the early 20th century - the Mercury dime, Standing Liberty quarter and Walking Liberty half dollar - beautifully rendered in pure 24 karat gold. These three classic American coins were faithfully updated and released in 2016 on the 100th anniversary of their original issue in 1916.
The 2016 U.S. Walking Liberty Centennial gold half dollar weighs a full 1/2 troy ounce of .9999 fine gold and measures 1.063 inches (27.00 mm) in diameter. The front of the coin depicts Liberty confidently striding forward while the sun rises majestically behind her on the horizon. The reverse of the Walking Liberty Centennial gold piece features an American bald eagle nobly perched on a rocky outcropping. The original Walking Liberty half dollar design was so well loved that it was also adopted for the obverse design for the ubiquitous American Silver Eagle bullion coin.
2016 U.S. Gold Walking Liberty Half Dollars For Sale
The 2016 U.S. Standing Liberty Centennial gold quarter weighs 1/4 of a troy ounce of pure gold and has a diameter of 0.866 inches (22.00 mm). The obverse shows the personification of Liberty standing serenely with a shield in her left hand and an olive branch in her right hand. The reverse depicts an eagle in flight with its wings outstretched.
2016 U.S. Gold Standing Liberty Quarters For Sale
The 2016 U.S. Mercury Dime Centennial gold coin is struck from 1/10 of a troy ounce of 24 karat gold and is heavier than the original silver Mercury dime. The gold Mercury dime measures 0.650 inches (16.50 mm) in diameter. The front shows the head of winged Liberty, which is often identified with the ancient Roman god Mercury, while the reverse features a Roman fasces entwined with an olive branch.
2016 U.S. Gold Mercury Dimes For Sale
These three gold centennial issues have extremely limited mintages: 125,000 pieces for the dime, 100,000 for the quarter and only 70,000 for the half dollar. These coins are also notable because their original silver analogs often suffered from weak strikes due to the complexity of their designs. This is an oversight that the United States mint was finally able to rectify with modern minting technology, giving collectors the opportunity to own some truly iconic gold coins in stunningly pristine condition.
However, in my opinion, the ultimate gold bullion coin for the truly discerning collector is the 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle. The name is quite a mouthful, but this coin is worthy of its weighty title. It is a one troy ounce bullion piece struck from pure 24 karat, .9999 fine gold. But any similarity with lesser bullion coins promptly ends there. In order to understand why the 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle is so special, you need to first know the history behind this unique piece of numismatic Americana.
In the early 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to give the burgeoning American nation a coinage to rival that of the ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek coinage has been renowned through the millennia for its incomparable beauty, in particular its high relief designs. High relief is when a coin's devices (designs) are substantially raised above its flat background, or field, giving an impressive, almost sculptural effect.
President Roosevelt commissioned renowned artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create new dies for the U.S. double eagle, or $20 gold piece. Saint-Gaudens then designed the legendary St. Gaudens double eagle, which has been copied and adapted many times over the years. It features a robed lady Liberty boldly moving forward while holding a torch in her right hand and an olive branch in her left hand. The reverse portrays a noble American eagle soaring over a brilliant sunrise.
However, when Saint-Gaudens tried to have these magnificent new coins struck at the mint he ran into technical problems. The design was rendered in such high relief that the minting technology of the time was not up to the task of fully striking the coins. Consequently, the dies had to be redesigned in lower relief in order to accommodate the minting technology available.
Only 11,250 high relief double eagles were struck in 1907 for circulation before the dies were changed. These special high relief gold coins are especially coveted by knowledgeable U.S. coin collectors. In perennially high demand, prices generally start in the low five-figures for worn examples and rapidly escalate for nicer specimens.
In 2009, the U.S. Mint decided to finally right this historical wrong. Its Director, Ed Moy, resurrected the original high relief St. Gaudens double eagle design and adapted it into a limited edition, one troy ounce gold bullion coin. Except this time, the mint would make sure it would be fully struck in gloriously high relief as sculpture Augustus Saint-Gaudens originally intended.
Saint-Gauden's original plaster dies were pulled out of their hundred year storage at the U.S. Mint and digitally scanned. With the resulting digital design, the die was updated with the year, 2009, and the motto "In God We Trust", which was not present on the original 1907 version. In addition, four stars were added to the existing 46 stars around the rim of the obverse to reflect the additional four states that had joined the Union since 1907.
And with that, a masterpiece was born. The 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle measures 1.0630 inches (27.00) mm across and an unbelievable 0.1575 inches (4.00 mm) in thickness. These impressive gold bullion coins have been meticulously struck in the highest relief and to the most exacting standards. In fact, the standards were so exacting that it took a century before the technology was developed to make them a reality. And, of course, the mintage for this one year type is low, with only 115,178 pieces in existence.
2009 U.S. Gold Ultra High Relief Double Eagles For Sale
Nearly all of the gold bullion coins I've presented here are pure, 24 karat gold. While that is partially coincidence, there is also a solid financial reason to recommend it: attrition. Because pure gold is very soft, circulating gold coins have traditionally been alloyed with a small amount of other metals (primarily copper and silver) in order to harden and toughen the gold. However, gold bullion coins are not intended for circulation and can, therefore, be made from pure gold.
But as a result, 24 karat gold bullion coins frequently acquire scuffs, scrapes, rim bumps or other minor damage if they are mishandled. This doesn't impair their value as bullion pieces, but it does render them unacceptable to serious coin collectors. So the already small populations of the collectible gold bullion coins listed above will inevitably be whittled down further over time via carelessness and accidents. The remaining pristine coins will, predictably, appreciate in value as they become rarer.
There are a host of other very popular gold bullion coins that I have not mentioned. These include American Gold Eagles, Canadian Maple Leafs, British Britannias, Austrian Philharmonics and South African Krugerrands. I want to make it clear that while these coins certainly have some collectible attributes, it is unlikely they will ever be as desirable as the gold bullion coins specifically highlighted in this article.
Mintage plays a significant role here. The Mexican Libertad, Australian Nugget/Kangaroo, Chinese Panda and U.S. Buffalo series have never had a mintage higher than one million pieces in any year through 2016. However, American Gold Eagle and Canadian Maple Leaf mintages have commonly exceeded this amount. Since 2013, British Britannias have only been limited in supply by the number of coins the market will absorb in any given year. South African Krugerrands, one of the only gold bullion coins available in the 1960s and 1970s, were struck by the tens of millions during that period. High mintages for gold bullion coin series are not conducive to future numismatic price appreciation and should be avoided.
Another factor that makes certain gold bullion coins more collectible than others is design. Modern coins, particularly commemorative coins, have been notorious for decades for the overall poor quality of their designs. The specific bullion issues discussed in this article buck the trend, making truly aesthetically pleasing designs available to the collecting community.
In contrast, many lesser gold bullion coins wallow in their own stylistic mediocrity, content to be thoroughly uninspiring, albeit utilitarian. There are degrees of nuance here, of course. Canadian Maple Leafs and American Gold Eagles both have reasonably pleasing, although not exceptional, design, but are rendered less desirable by their high mintages. Specially struck proof and burnished uncirculated American Gold Eagle issues are special exceptions, as they have very low annual mintages of tens of thousands or fewer.
In any case, it is important to collect what you like. But if numismatically-oriented investment return is important to you, then low mintage figures coupled with compelling design is a must. While larger 1 troy ounce gold bullion coins should theoretically be more desirable than smaller examples, this size advantage may be offset by the lower mintages and better affordability that fractional issues enjoy.
Condition, as always, is also a key factor. Because modern gold bullion coins are manufactured to such high standards, imperfections that would normally be acceptable on older collector coins are absolutely forbidden here. Examples include scratches, nicks, scrapes or any other damage visible without magnification. Modern gold bullion coins are one of the few collecting areas where absolute perfection is almost a necessity.
Gold Bullion Coin Sets For Sale
Prices for gold bullion coins usually track the spot price of gold fairly closely. Common date one troy ounce U.S. Gold Buffaloes and Australian Nugget/Kangaroos sell for relatively small marks ups of about 5% to 10% over bullion value. Expect to pay a bit more for one ounce Chinese Pandas and Mexican Libertads. The premiums on these bullion pieces can range from about 8% on the low end to well over 100% for some of the rare Chinese Pandas.
The 2016 U.S. Centennial gold coins also command substantial premiums over their bullion value. Currently, the alluring U.S. Walking Liberty gold half dollar trades with a premium that is about 40% over spot. The gold Standing Liberty quarter and Mercury dime both have higher premiums than this. But these elevated premiums are to be expected, as smaller gold bullion coins usually have higher premiums than their larger counterparts.
The outstanding 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle sports a hefty 50% premium right now. However, its premium has been even higher in the recent past. Honestly, a 50% premium over spot seems pretty tame to me for the ultimate gold bullion coin, but you can make your own assessment.
It is the height of irony that we live in an age when the world's central banks pursue rampant inflationism while their national mints simultaneously strike tremendously beautiful and profoundly collectible gold bullion coins. Consider it a sign of the times, a reflection of the developed world's monetary cognitive dissonance. Whatever its cause, don't let this opportunity slip by you. Gold bullion coins currently offer one of the lowest risk investment options for the savvy coin collector or shrewd tangible asset investor.
Here is a luscious spread of 999 fine Yeager's Poured Silver bars with sizes ranging from 0.5 troy ounces to 5 troy ounces. The meticulous attention to detail on these hand-cast silver bars is truly breathtaking, underscoring their superb quality. These were purchased as a 1000 gram YPS grab bag in March of 2017.
I was checking the tangible asset allocation of my investment portfolio the other day when I discovered something alarming. I was underweight silver bullion. A situation like this can sometimes creep up on me because I regularly buy art and antiques for investment purposes. But this investing strategy also requires me to "balance" my tangibles portfolio with occasional bullion purchases.
"Easy enough to fix", I thought to myself. I'll just fire up my computer and head over to one of the major bullion dealer websites like Kitco, Apmex or JM Bullion. They all offer competitive pricing on a wide range of silver products, including government issued coins, private mint rounds and bullion bars.
But I'm always looking to get the most for my investment dollar. To be specific, I'm usually searching for an investment characteristic known as optionality. Optionality is any aspect of an investment that costs little money upfront, but can return big rewards later. Most assets that deliver huge, multi-decade returns, including real estate and stocks, operate on the principal of optionality.
That is when I stumbled upon the website of Yeager's Poured Silver. Yeager's Poured Silver, also known by the acronym YPS, is a company that has been making and selling hand-poured silver bullion bars since 2012. Now, I love vintage poured silver bars, but I have been undecided about the investment merits of new poured silver bars.
At least, I was undecided until I researched Yeager's Poured Silver. David Yeager, the founder and owner of the business, has spent years perfecting the art of hand-casting some of the most beautiful silver bars I have ever seen. He sells a variety of traditional 999 fine silver bars ranging in size from a diminutive 0.5 troy ounce "nugget" to a substantial 1 kilogram specimen. However, he also offers imaginative 3D art bars cast in the shape of skulls, pyramids and lion heads, among other things. He even offers Halloween, Christmas and other holiday themed poured silver bars.
Yeager's Poured Silver Bars For Sale
Although he charges fairly high premiums over the spot price of silver, YPS bars aren't simply bullion. They are art. Or, to be more precise, they ride the fine line between bullion and art in much the same way that government issued bullion coins like Chinese Silver Pandas, Canadian Maple Leaves or American Silver Eagles have both precious metal value and collector's value simultaneously.
Because of the high premiums Yeager's Poured Silver bars typically command over spot, the item that really caught my eye was the 1000 gram YPS grab bag of silver bars. As the name implies, this is a full kilogram (32.15 troy ounces) of YPS silver bars of varying sizes and types. They are all chosen from excess inventory, so the buyer cannot request any specific kind of silver bar. The upside of the 1000 gram YPS grab bag, however, is that the cost per ounce is significantly lower than if you were to order items individually.
When I placed my order, the 1000 gram YPS grab bag was selling for $634 while silver was trading at $17.26 a troy ounce. This means the YPS grab bag contained approximately $555 worth of fine silver. The difference between the purchase price of $634 and the bullion value of $555 constituted the premium I paid above spot. In this case the premium was about $79 or 14.3%.
Yeager's Poured Silver Skulls & Pyramids For Sale
In contrast, you can currently buy 100 troy ounce silver bars for about 75 to 85 cents over spot. This translates into a premium of between 4% and 5%. So generic silver bars in large sizes are certainly the cheaper option if all you want is raw silver for the lowest possible price.
But those cheap silver bars have some drawbacks. For one, they are much, much larger than the 1/2 to 10 troy ounce poured bars you'll get in a YPS grab bag. Those 100 troy ounce behemoths are also likely to be generic bars from lesser known refineries. And, finally, large silver bars are likely to be struck or extruded rather than poured.
This last point is important because poured silver bars have a tendency to hold their premiums on the secondary market better than other kinds of silver bars. You simply can't expect to sell modern struck or extruded silver bar for more than spot. Yes, there are certain niche situations where they might command a premium over spot, like a severe physical silver shortage. But these circumstances are unlikely; you certainly can't count on them.
But if you want to buy silver at a premium, you also need to be able to sell it at a premium in order to come out ahead. And that, in my opinion, is the biggest reason to buy a YPS grab bag over generic silver bars - the expected future premium upon resale.
Yeager's Poured Silver consistently sells for a healthy premium no matter where you look. It sells at a premium on the YPS website. It also sells at a premium on the eBay secondary market. YPS poured silver bars are miniature works of art and are priced as such.
Yeager's Poured Silver Cubes For Sale
More importantly, I strongly suspect YPS poured silver bars will always command meaningful premiums over spot. But here is the really interesting thing. The premium I paid on my YPS grab bag over comparable silver bars - if you can call generic 100 troy ounce silver bars comparable - was really quite modest.
In fact, my breakeven point versus generic silver is only around 10%. If YPS silver bars sell for less than 10% over spot in the future, then I will make less money than I could have by purchasing generic silver bullion. But this potential relative underperformance is actually very limited.
However, if YPS silver bars sell for a premium higher than 10% in the future, then all that upside belongs to me. And that potential upside is uncapped. YPS silver bars could eventually end up like vintage Engelhard or Johnson Matthey poured silver bars are today, with premiums ranging from 20% to 60% over spot, or even more. YPS poured silver bars represent a classic example of optionality in investing.
Below is a list of the items I received in my 1000 gram YPS grab bag. I placed the order in March of 2017 and the total weight delivered was 32.1829 troy ounces (1001 grams):
- 3 - 100 gram bars
- 2 - 100 gram cubes
- 1 - 5 troy ounce "YPS" bar
- 1 - 3 troy ounce "Slim" bar
- 1 - 3 troy ounce wedge
- 1 - 2 troy ounce cube
- 1 - 1 troy ounce cube
- 1 - 50 gram "Plata Muerta" (Dead Silver) round
- 1 - 0.5 troy ounce "Nugget" bar
And I'm happy to say that the 1000 gram YPS grab bag I received completely exceeded my rather lofty expectations. Even though you can't stipulate the inclusion of any specific bar in a grab bag, I did give a general preference for traditionally-shaped bars and cubes.
Much to my delight, David Yeager went out of his way to accommodate my wishes. This is in spite of the fact that he was under no obligation to do so whatsoever. The choice of silver bars in any YPS grab bag is completely at his discretion.
Yeager's Poured Silver 3D Art Bars For Sale
I was not only extremely pleased with the type of poured silver bars I received, but also with the quality of the bars. It was obvious that they were all hand-fabricated with incredible attention to detail, including serialization (numbering) on several different bars. They all had beautiful, bright finishes while still maintaining that classic, rugged look that poured silver is famous for. These are all little touches that set YPS poured silver bars apart from the boring struck and extruded bars that are so common in the bullion market today. Yeager's Poured Silver is premium silver.
If you are interested in either bullion or coin collecting, I think a strong case can be made for investing in some poured silver bars from YPS. Unfortunately, as of the spring of 2018, it appears that Yeager's Poured Silver no longer sells 1000 gram grab bags. However, he still offers 10 troy ounce grab bags of his classic bars, cubes and rounds. And if that isn't what you're looking for, you can always go with the 10 troy ounce 3D art bar grab bag. Either way, you can't go wrong with Yeager's Poured Silver; it is some of the best premium silver available today.
This antique Japanese netsuke sculpture depicts a smaller rat playfully piggybacking on a larger rat. Although it looks like ivory, this example is probably made from either bone or antler. Given the relative crudeness of this piece, it could be a 20th century copy made for the tourist trade.
Americans like things big. We live in a country the size of a continent. We drive SUVs that can seat 8 or, alternatively, accommodate a pygmy hippo. We pioneered the concept of the 6 bedroom, 3500 square foot McMansion, complete with in-ground swimming pool. Hell, the unofficial motto of the state of Texas - which, incidentally, is comfortably larger than the nation of France - is "Everything's bigger in Texas!" But sometimes our obsession with super-sizing everything can blind us to the subtle, understated charms of small things. And rarely are all the finest elements of small design more fully realized than in Edo and Meiji era Japanese Netsuke carvings.
The Japanese people have traditionally been - and still are today - masters of the miniature. This artistic gift is perhaps most evident in their incredibly skilled Netsuke sculpture. Netsuke are diminutive Japanese carvings that emphasize the wonderful plasticity of their constituent natural materials. They were an integral part of the traditional Japanese wardrobe during the Edo and early Meiji periods, from the mid 17th century to the end of the 19th century.
The primary Japanese garment during this time was the silk kimono, which was worn by both men and women. However, kimonos have no pockets. As a result, the Japanese used a pouch or purse to carry around money or other small items. A netsuke secured a traveler's money pouch to his kimono sash and was used by everyone from samurai to peasants to courtesans.
Affordable Edo and Meiji Era Japanese Netsuke For Sale
Over the course of the Edo period netsuke evolved from purely functional items into increasingly elaborate works of art meant to display the wearer's wealth, sophistication or even political views. Edo era Japan was a highly stratified society. The shogun (ruler) and his subordinate daimyo (lords) were at the top of the social pyramid followed by samurai, farmers, craftsmen and finally merchants. However, centuries of peace during the prosperous Tokugawa shogunate meant that the samurai class - near the top of the social order - became increasingly impoverished while merchants and craftsmen - at the bottom of society - became progressively wealthier.
The shoguns attempted to preserve Japan's feudal social order by promulgating strict sumptuary laws. These laws prevented people in the lower classes from openly flaunting their wealth by building lavish houses or wearing fine clothing. Newly rich craftsmen and merchants responded to this repression, in part, by purchasing luxurious and fanciful netsuke for their personal use.
In 1853, a naval expedition under U.S. commodore Matthew Perry entered Edo (Tokyo) bay and demanded that the previously isolationist Japanese open up trade relations with the West. This event threw the shogunate into a crisis that eventually precipitated its downfall. After the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 1860s, the Japanese increasingly adopted Western style clothing.
As a result, netsuke gradually became unnecessary, falling into disuse during the Meiji era in the late 19th century. Even after becoming anachronisms, devoted artists from Japan - as well as other countries - have continued to craft lavish, whimsical netsuke sculptures to the present day. This validates the netsuke's legitimacy as an objet d'art par excellence.
Edo and Meiji Era Japanese Netsuke For Sale
Antique Japanese netsuke come in a variety of different forms. The most common are katabori or figural designs. Popular themes for katabori netsuke were plants, animals, everyday scenes, holy men and gods. Round, flattened shapes that resemble large buttons or discs are known as manju netsuke. Mennetsuke (mask netsuke) were also extremely popular, imitating either noh, bugaku or kyogen masks from the Japanese theatre.
Japanese netsuke were made from myriad different materials, but preeminent among them was ivory. It is estimated that up to half of all netsuke were made from ivory. Although ivory is a compellingly tactile, durable and beautiful material, its sale has been banned in most developed nations to combat poaching. This, unfortunately, renders buying or selling elephant ivory netsuke technically illegal in many jurisdictions. Luckily, the Japanese also produced netsuke in a variety of remarkably attractive materials other than ivory, including boar tusk, horn, bone, lacquer and metal.
Wood is the most frequently encountered netsuke material besides ivory. Species such as boxwood, cherry, cypress, yew and cedar were commonly used while exotic, imported woods like ebony and rosewood were employed less often. All of these woods possess exceptionally dense, compact grains that resist wear and are well-suited to finely detailed carving work. The warm, dark patina of a fine boxwood netsuke from the age of the samurai is both distinctively mellow and unmistakably alluring.
Edo and Meiji Era Wooden Japanese Netsuke For Sale
The single greatest factor in determining a netsuke's value is the execution and skill of the carving itself. This criterion overshadows every other consideration when evaluating a netsuke's desirability and future return potential.
Condition is another major factor in determining the value of a Japanese netsuke. Genuine examples - all over a century old - will invariably possess an attractive, even and undisturbed patina. Due to their age, small chips, cracks or minor blemishes are acceptable on original netsuke. Major damage, however, is undesirable and renders a piece uninvestable.
Although uncommon, some netsuke makers signed their miniature sculptures just as any other artist would sign his work. The presence of a signature does not significantly affect a netsuke's price unless it belongs to one of the most famous masters. A netsuke's material, likewise, rarely impacts its value.
High-End Edo and Meiji Era Japanese Netsuke For Sale
Beware of crude "netsuke-like" carvings when acquiring specimens. These were produced in vast quantities in 20th century Japan for the Western tourist trade. These pieces were not meant to be fakes per se, but more like imitations. They lack the delicacy and refinement of genuine netsuke carvings. Consequently, they have no collector's value and should be avoided. Verifying that a netsuke has two holes placed near each other (originally for the cords attaching it to a kimono sash) should help weed out some of the clumsier reproductions.
Their sweeping, delicate lines and bold, organic forms infuse netsuke sculpture with an unmistakable aura of Eastern sophistication. Simple, yet original, 19th century netsuke are available from around $175. More complex, intricately crafted examples of these overlooked investments readily trade for several hundred dollars. Truly exquisite netsuke start at around $1,000, escalating quickly into the thousands of dollars for museum quality pieces.
Few things exemplify the pure artistry of the diminutive better than authentic Edo and Meiji era Japanese netsuke. As some of the world's finest works of miniature sculpture, netsuke prove that while sometimes bigger is better, other times small is the best of all.