It was the emergence of the very useful but somewhat hazardous ‘strike anywhere’ match in the 1830s that necessitated the fashion for vesta cases.
But these small portable 'safes' also came
to say much about the status, wealth and personality of their
As part of the essential 'dress code' of the
Victorian and Edwardian era they were, like the snuffbox or the
propelling pencil, made in a whole range of materials and forms
from the purely functional to the deluxe and the novel.
With such huge scope in terms of variety and
price levels, vestas are perfect collectables and most regional
sales will include one or two.
But the sale of a Welsh private collection
at Lawrences of Crewkerne on October 9 was
something else entirely and perhaps the largest on record. At 302
lots it required less than three hours of selling time but, as many
were multiples comprising up to a dozen or so 'safes', there were
comfortably more than 1000 individual items to view.
While the first matches appeared on the
market at the end of the Georgian era (the English chemist John
Walker marketed a sulphur-tipped splint called a "Congreves "as
early as 1827) the heyday of the vesta box were the decades either
side of the 20th century.
The vast majority of the 2000 examples here
dated from c.1880, when the fashion for cigarette smoking began,
and c.1920 when the vestas were superseded by the more durable
petrol lighter and the throwaway paper 'matchbook'.
Range of Forms
The typical Birmingham-made shaped
rectangular silver vesta with a flip-top lid, a ribbed 'strike' on
its base, and a link to attach a watch chain was, of course,
represented many times in a range of decorative treatments. But it
was the number and variety of different forms that made this a
special offering and here invention and whimsy counts more than
The common man carried his matches in a
straightforward box made of tin, gunmetal, brass or vulcanite -
perhaps a promotional giveaway advertising a popular brand - and
some of these survive in relatively small numbers. Strong sums can
be commanded for nickel-plated and celluloid advertising models
(averaging out at around £50 each) and for the myriad pressed brass
models in forms that ranged from shoes and suitcases to snakes and
Some of these are relatively common (pigs,
violins, crowns, rooster heads and Mr Punch were bought for under
£100), while many of the scarcer novelties brought between £150 and
250 each as expected. But it was more of an eye-opener that, in a
sale watched by so many collectors from the US in particular, a
good handful passed the £500 mark. These included a plated brass
Punch and Judy tent (£640) and a donkey's head (£520).
A number of Japanese copper and brass
vestas, that combine a European idea with Meiji metalworking skills
and traditional subject matter were particularly well received.
These can be a cut above in terms of design
and execution and the publication of a book on the subject this
year (Japanese Match Safes, Neil Shapiro) has perhaps helped bring
this niche field into focus. Certainly estimates were bettered time
and again - a brass vesta in the form of a cat with a rat, selling
As a general rule this was not a selection
of the most deluxe English vesta cases - the late 19th century
boxes with enamel decoration by Sampson Mordan & Co. There
were, for example, none of the series modelled as sentry boxes
occupied by variously enamelled guards or those enamelled with
Victorian golfers or hunting scenes.
Budget had doubtless been a factor: for a
good many years these have sold for £1500-5000. However, there were
some handsome silver examples, such as that in the form of a Noh
mask by Louis Emmanuel, Birmingham, 1887 (£480) or a Continental
box as a car radiator with import marks for London 1913 (£640).
Above: the Continental vesta box in the form
of a car radiator with import marks for London 1913 -
The financial highlight of the collection
was provided by an Edwardian silver and enamel box (JWB,
Birmingham, 1909) decorated with the full range of yachting pennant
signals that improved upon its £300-400 estimate to bring
Some of these commanded interest from
several collecting quarters, as do the 'combination' vestas, that
include apertures for sovereigns, stamps and the like, or the
patents models that offered new and ingenious ways of lighting a
Among the most eagerly contested items in
this sub-category was an Edwardian box with a 'purse'-type closure
that opened to reveal six 'fanning' double match holders. Marked
for Albert Barker, London 1902, it took £520.
Highlights from the £75,000 collection are
The buyer's premium was 19.5%.