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Match safes are miniature works of art
By Susan Emerson Nutter<

CINCINNATI — Smoking cigarettes and cigars used to be the norm. More healthy lifestyles saw the demise of this past-time, and with it went the accoutrements associated with lighting up. Well, not exactly. Like anything that falls from favor, pieces pertaining to the now defunct activity often take on a new life thanks to collectors who want to preserve the past.

When the items are not only historical, but beautiful values increase and collectors vie for the best. Cowan’s Auctions presented the Magnificent Match Safe Collection of David and Holiday Winfield of St. Louis on Jan. 11. This was an online only auction. Bidders proved there is great interest for antique and vintage match safes.

And why not? These beautiful baubles can be intricately made of silver, silver-plate, gold and gold quartz. Some include jewels; others images of nude women; still others can be advertising items bringing into the fray a whole other group of collectors. Some match safes are presentation pieces adding a historical bent to the genre.

The couple behind the collection; David and Holiday Winfield decided to downsize and culled 400 pieces to be sold from their collection that was 30 years in the making. Two hundred match safes made up this January sale, and 200 more will sell at Cowan’s in late June.

David has been collecting his whole life and quickly learned that space could become an issue. “These match safes are tiny magnificent works of art that easily fit into the palm of your hand. They can be appreciated individually this way, or make a splash when displayed together.”

Match safes like those from the Winfield Collection are also called match holders or vesta cases and date to the mid-19th century when friction matches first came on the scene. Friction matches were a wonderful invention to help everyone from the homemaker to the high roller where starting a fire or lighting a cigar was concerned. The only problem with these first matches though, was their tendency to light easily with just the slightest scrape.

Enter the match safe which kept the “Lucifers” (as these early matches were called) from igniting unexpectedly. These match holding boxes were all the rage until around the 1930s when matchbooks and cigarette lighters almost completely wiped-out their importance.

“I learned early on when buying antiques like these match safes, to buy up; to always buy the best if given the opportunity,” David said.

One of the top lots of this auction was a 14k gold match safe presented to John Breckenridge Babcock (1847-1909); a “First Lieutenant of the 5th U.S. Cavalry and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, awarded for his action and leadership during the Indian Campaigns of 1869, specifically at Spring Creek, Nebraska,” according to Cowan’s. The official citation on the match safe read,

While serving with a scouting column, this officer’s troop was attacked by a vastly superior force of Indians. Advancing to high ground, he dismounted his men, remaining mounted himself to encourage them, and there fought the Indians until relieved, his horse being wounded.

Engraved on the back - Presented to / John B. Babcock / by / Charles Bergenstein / as a token of esteem / June 10th 1878, with applied monograms decorating the front, this match safe realized $2,460. Prices include a buyer’s premium.

Another safe of interest bringing $3,000 was the English, 1886, sterling match safe by Sampson Mordan. Done in the form of a sentry box, this match safe had an enameled panel depicting the sentry inside.

The intriguing design of the silver match safe featuring 16 Roman coin roundels and 58 nail heads of 14K gold helped this late 19th century piece reach $1,599. The match safe sold with a wooden cane whose silver handle also sported five Roman coin roundels and 10 gold nail heads.

Match safes done in gold were particularly popular. A match safe set with two triangular gold quartz panels, engraved decoration and an armorial engraved on the back, sold for $1,680.

Since mainly men carried match safes, it was not uncommon that beautiful women decorated the piece; especially nudes. A late 19th century American sterling silver match safe with repousse decoration of a nude woman among flowers was bid to $800, doubling its high presale estimate. A late 19th century French made silver match safe featuring an enameled panel of a semi-nude woman oddly enough in front of a spider web with a fly on her arm made $840, just over its high estimate. Another French silver match safe with a marine decoration including a nude woman lifted by a wave sold for $960, which tripled its high estimate. The top match safe featuring a nude was the American sterling silver example having a plain exterior with a hinged front panel that opened to reveal an enamel image of a nude woman. This match safe brought $1,400.

Figural match safes are always popular with an American Wallace sterling silver match safe of a beetle with detailed repousse embellishments on the top and bottom making $1,046, and the Tiffany & Co. name always garners attention like the American silvered soldered match safe in the form of a Bollinger wine crate which sold for $1,200.

Though this auction “enjoyed a 90.5 percent sell through rate,” according to Cowan’s Business Manager for Fine and Decorative Arts, Kirstie Craven; two outstanding match safes from this first edition of the Winfield Collection did not find new homes. These will be offered again in an upcoming Cowan’s jewelry auction, and with good reason.

A 14K gold safe having grey gold quartz panels, the front featuring a gold panel with the enameled crossed flags of the United States and Belgium beneath a crown set with six diamonds, sliding out to reveal a presentation panel reading Presented to / His Majesty / Leopold II / King of Belgium / by / Henry I. Kowalsky / San Francisco, Cal. / U.S.A. 1900 is a great fit for a jewelry event. An Etruscan-style match safe, propelling pencil and pen knife set by Marcus & Co. in 14K gold and enamel, set with emerald cabochons from the Muzo Mine near Bogota, Colombia, will also be presented for bids.

The Winfields were extremely pleased with this first installment and with Cowan’s. “Wes and his staff are just wonderful,” David said. “The company’s integrity and reliability are first-rate. Everyone we came in contact with was well trained and highly qualified. Holly and I are excited for the next sale in June.”

Contact: 513-871-1670

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