For one reason or another it has fallen to me to conduct the auction of humidors at the Gala dinner on the last night of the Festival del Habano in Havana for 13 out of the last 14 years. If all goes well, by the time you read this article it will be 14 out of the last 15 years.
The year 2012 marked a milestone for me personally because the total figure raised by my chaveta (I use a cigar maker’s knife as my gavel) to support the Cuban Public Health system broke the US$10 million mark.
Looking back, one auction tends to merge into another, but nothing can compare to the first one I conducted back in 1999. Why, I don’t know, but the president of Habanos S.A. at that time, the late Francisco Linares, felt I could handle it. Perhaps he thought that every Englishman spent his early life with one of London’s famed auction houses like Sotheby’s or Christie’s but, in my case, nothing could have been further from the truth. I had wielded the gavel at one or two neighbourhood functions selling pots of jam for local charities, but he wanted me to stand up in front of over 800 people and raise a fortune in much needed funds for Cuba’s hospitals.
I got some help when someone persuaded Duncan McEwan, one of Christie’s top wine auctioneers, to coach me in his art over the phone – I still have the notes I took that day. He told me how not to get lost when sorting out the bidders and, above all, he instructed me to keep smiling, no matter what.
“No matter what” on that occasion included sharing the stage with Fidel Castro, who came to my rescue when the room became chaotic because of his arrival. That night we raised $750,000, a record back then for cigar auctions.
Neither the president Castro, nor I, could quite believe what had happened. Shortly afterwards he made the decision that the Festival del Habano should become a national Cuban event, which is why the 1999 festival is counted as the first despite Habanos S.A. having hosted its own gatherings before that date. The following year I turned down the invitation to do it again. I felt my supply of beginner’s luck had run out and that someone else should have the chance. But in 2001 they asked me back and I have done it ever since. We have topped the million Dollar mark on four occasions; last year we fell just short at $944,000. Not bad, when you consider what’s going on in the world today.
Perhaps I should explain that the currency we use these days is Euros, not US Dollars. The switch took place in 2005, just after the Cuban government withdrew the US Dollar from circulation and started to charge a 10% premium on Dollar conversions into Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) in response to President George Bush’s strengthening of the embargo.
Sensing that it would be odd to conduct an auction in US Dollars under these circumstances, I consulted the then Cuban co-president of Habanos S.A., Oscar Basulto, who sadly passed away last year. He instructed the change to Euros and I passed on the news to the guests with a smile on my face. It worked. With an instant 20% increase in the value of every bid, we did well, raising nearly $200,000 more (after conversion) than the year before.
Another major change took place in 2007. Up until then all the lots had been signed personally by Fidel Castro. How-ever the president had fallen ill the previous summer. It seemed likely that he had more challenging things to contend with than signing the auction humidors, but this was not confirmed until I arrived at the dinner, armed with alternative scripts to cover either eventuality. No-one, including me, knew how the absence of the signature would affect the bidding. I did my best to smile and explain the situation. I reminded those present that the needs of the Cuban health service were as great as ever. We took around 10% less than the previous year, but still recorded a handsome total of 533,000 Euros, or $700,000.
Interestingly, the four occasions on which we topped a million Dollars took place in the years immediately following this event, which showed that we could still do it without the signatures. The lots themselves are all humidors crafted by some of Cuba’s most talented artists and craftsmen, often embellished with ornate carvings or trimmed with gold or silver. Usually each one features a particular Habanos brand. For example, last year there were six lots representing H. Upmann, Hoyo de Monterrey, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and Cohiba.
Recently the quantity of cigars they contain has enjoyed the effects of inflation. In the early years, one or two hundred cigars were all you could expect to find inside the humidors. However, since 2008, this figure has crept upwards to over 300 in even the smallest lot. Last year’s Cohiba humidor housed 520 cigars, but the record was set in 2008, when 700 cigars from 11 brands were offered in a piece to commemorate the tenth festival. This year it is the fifteenth, so maybe the record will be shattered again.
Just as important as the numerical haul of cigars are their sizes. Some are standard vitolas from the brands in question, but even these are made especially for the auction by an elite cadre of torcedores assembled by Tabacuba.
Others can be extremely rare, such as the H. Upmann Butifarras, which means “sausages”, 50 of which appeared in 2011. These cigars – squat perfectos measuring 125mm (5 inches) by 55 ring gauge – were nicknamed “Flying Pigs” by Hunters & Frankau’s salesmen in the Sixties, when they were last made.
They caused great excitement amongst Far Eastern collectors and the humidor was on a plane to Hong Kong within hours of the end of the auction. Habanos S.A. uses the auction to offer its very latest cigars for the first time. The first BHKs to be sold were found in the 2010 Cohiba humidor and the first Montecristo No. 2 Gran Reservas were sold in the 2011 Montecristo lot. It is always worth making a note of some of the rare sizes that crop up because the industry likes to use the auction to experiment with new vitolas that one day might be added to the standard range.
Experience has taught me that auctions at the Festival del Habano’s Gala Dinners are unpredictable. No matter how carefully I prepare, something is likely to occur that will upset the flow. In 2001, at the Tropicana open air nightclub, once again I was on stage with Fidel Castro, which was nerve-racking enough. Suddenly, without warning, we were joined by 93-year-old Compay Segundo, lead singer of the Buena Vista Social Club band, who started to address the president. Castro then turned to me and explained that Compay wanted me to sell his trademark Panama hat, which I did, and we got $17,500 for it.
As I never know what surprises will greet me on the night, there is no doubt that the best auctioneering advice I ever received came from Duncan at Christie’s – “Keep smiling, no matter what”.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2013. Read more