Wednesday 18 September 2019

Treasures: Table lighters ignite interest in collectors

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Dunhill Aquarium table-top lighter
Dunhill Aquarium table-top lighter
Dunhill Aquarium lighter
Basil Blackshaw painting

'Little ideas well worked bring fortunes," said the inventor Alfred Dunhill. He was right. Those in possession of a Dunhill Aquarium table lighter may well have a small inflammable fortune on the desk in front of them.

This October, a rare Dunhill Aquarium table lighter sold on eBay for £7,100 (€7,870). Bidding had started two weeks previously at £1,000 (€1,110). Part of the value of the piece was that it showed a scene with the RMS Queen Mary, the flagship of the Cunard Line (1936 to 1946). It was a high price, but not unprecedented. In April 2016, a Dunhill Aquarium table lighter, showing a salmon on one side and a fisherman on the other, sold for £10,000 (€11,079) at Bonham's. Another, less rare, example fetched £1,625 (€1,800) in the same auction.

One of the attractions of lighters is they're really cool gadgets. In August 2011, Stephen Fry placed the lighter number one on his list of 100 Greatest Gadgets, describing it as "fire with a flick of the fingers". There's also a subversive thrill in enjoying vintage smoking accessories, collectively known as "tobacciana". They date from a time when smoking was deemed a socially acceptable, even a healthy, habit.

The first lighters were converted from flintlock pistols and used gunpowder. In 1816, a German chemist called Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner invented a lighter that became known as 'Döbereiner's lamp'. The chemistry was complex, but it involved sulphuric acid, platinum and the highly explosive gas, hydrogen. Astonishingly, the lethal contraption became a household object and was used to light fires in middle-class English and German homes.

In 1829, a Berlin manufacturer described it as "a pleasant and useful Christmas present, a lighting machine outfitted with platinum, elegant, clean, and sturdily constructed, with Chinese and other decoration, insensitive to wetness and cold".

The advertisement didn't mention the fact that it could blow your house to smithereens. Döbereiner's lamps occasionally turn up at auction, usually in Germany, with estimates between €4,000 and €6,000. By the early 20th century, Döbereiner's lamp had been eclipsed by the safety match and other, less combustible, sources of flame. The modern lighter was born of the patenting of ferrocerium (a man-made material that produces hot sparks when scraped) in 1903. Based on this technology, an American company called Ronson produced a series of early lighters that culminated in the Ronson De-Light Lighter, which could be ignited with one hand. "A flip - and it's lit! Release - and it's out," the advertising slogan proclaimed.

In the early 1930s, Ronson's Art Metal Works produced many decorative table lighters. Some mimicked Georgian antiques, others resembled Art Deco buildings and others showed a seemingly random synthesis of modern and historic styles. For middle-class households, table-top lighters were aspirational objects and they had to match the furniture. A 1957 advertisement boasts that: "Only Ronson has a lighter for every room, every décor."

The archaic lighters, which often outlived their owners, are now highly collectible. So too are all species of early Zippo, which first saw the light of day in 1932.

Irish homes were much more likely to have an English-made Dunhill lighter than an American model. Alfred Dunhill inherited his father's saddlery business in 1893 and decided that automobiles were a better bet. He founded Dunhill Motorities, a shop that sold motoring accessories and promoted its wares under the slogan: "Everything but the motor." He even designed a "shield pipe" so people could smoke when they were driving.

Dunhill was a restless entrepreneur and a committed pipe smoker. In 1907, he opened a shop that offered personalised tobacco blends for individual customers. By 1924, the company had expanded and was producing patented lighters of Dunhill's own invention. Dunhill table lighters have a sense of playfulness that sets them apart.

The Dunhill Duelling Pistol Lighter (c1929) is made in the shape of an 18th century pistol (referencing the origins of early lighters). Dunhill Aladdin's Lamp (1952) looks just like a Roman lamp. But the most engaging of all table-top lighters are Dunhill Aquariums. Large enough to sit on a table-top, small enough to fit in a pocket, they look like mini aquariums with tiny painted fish swimming within a clear plastic case.

The fish, reeds and aquatic backgrounds are meticulously observed and delicately painted, and the depth of the clear Lucite that surrounds them gives the tableaux the illusion of movement. Some show seawater fish and some show freshwater, but never both.

The lighters are one-off items, each one was individually designed, etched on to the reverse of the Lucite panel and then painted by hand. All Dunhill Aquarium lighters were designed and made by an artist called Ben Shillingford between the early 1950s to the late 1960s. When Shillingford retired, the company couldn't find anyone else with the particular blend of imagination and skill to take over his job. No more Aquarium lighters were made.

The technological aspect of the lighters is relatively standard. The lighting mechanism at the top is robustly metallic, as is the base (this was where you put in the petrol that fuelled the lighters). They come in three metal finishes, silver-plated, gold-plated or chromium-plated, and two sizes: half giant (10cm long) and the slightly smaller, and rarer, service size (6cm long).

The Queen Mary Aquarium lighter that sold so well on eBay last month was one of a very small number, known as "non-aquatic aquariums", that show scenes of hunting, horse-racing, birds, or boats. Shillingford even made one showing the record-breaking racing car, the Bluebird-Proteus CN7, speeding along the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The reverse shows the home run.

A Dunhill Aquarium table lighter will be offered in Whyte's December 10 Christmas Auction, estimate €3,000-€5,000.


In the salerooms


The next auction of Fine Jewellery, Watches and Silver takes place at O'Reilly's Fine Art, Francis Street, on Wednesday at 1pm. In the Christmas present price-bracket, there are a number of attractive antique pieces set with semi-precious stones, such as a simple blue zircon and diamond ring (est €200 to €250).

Over-the-top Victoriana includes a brooch-cum-pendant set with pearls and turquoises around a central garnet with a diamond in the middle of it - totally unrestrained and great fun (est €350 to €450). Another, more reserved, rectangular Victorian brooch is set with pearls and diamonds. A delicate aquamarine and diamond suspended necklace shows lovely craftsmanship (est €1,400 to €1,600), as does an 18ct gold bangle set with diamonds (est €1,200 to €1,500). In the investment price-bracket, an antique diamond ring with three old cut diamonds is estimated to sell between €34,000 and €40,000.

For full details and viewing times, see


As the run-up to Christmas gathers pace, the National Antiques, Art & Vintage Fair will take place at the South Court Hotel, Limerick, on Saturday and Sunday.

This is a very large fair and exhibitors include many accredited members of the IADA. Expect 18th and 19th century furniture from Roger Grimes and Martin Maguire; Greene's Antique Galleries, Drogheda and Donegal Antiques; fine art from George Stacpoole and Treasures Irish Art Athlone; books from Vanessa Parker; and jewellery from JW Weldon and Marie Curran. See

This Sunday, there will be an Antiques & Vintage Fair at Clontarf Castle Hotel from 11am to 6pm. For more information, see or call 087 2670607.


Basil Blackshaw painting

The surprise of Whyte's online auction of affordable art must surely have been a small untitled oil on paper (above) by Basil Blackshaw. The painting, which shows a rough but dynamic depiction of a flower in a pot against a blue background, was estimated to sell for between €300 and €500. It sold for €2,600.

The rise in Blackshaw's prices is almost certainly linked to the death of the artist earlier in the year.

Harry Kernoff's stylised but insightful 'Self Portrait' (1936) slightly exceeded its upper estimate and sold for €2,100. 'The Harvest', by the British artist Thomas Saunders Nash (1891-1968), realised €1,900. The painting came from the collection of George & Maura McClelland and shows a crowded but neatly-composed pastoral scene with villagers carrying baskets of harvested produce under the direction of village elders.

The next auction of Important Irish Art at Whyte's takes place on November 28. See

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