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They take their name from the Roman goddess of fire and the hearth, although in the US they are more prosaically known as ‘match safes’. When they first came into use in the 1830s, friction matches were hazardous and could combust without warning, so vesta cases were something of a necessity.

What followed was a huge variety, which also means collectors from a wide array of collecting fields will find items of interest, as in the January 16 single-owner auction being held by Lawrences of Crewkerne, Somerset.

The McKenzies are selling their vesta collection which includes materials from brass, bronze and glass to porcelain, silver and gold, and designs from enamelled rail tickets and vintage cars to French ‘naughty nineties’ vestas from the 1890s with eye-opening scenes hidden inside.

Around 2700 items in total are offered in nearly 500 lots. Estimates range from £50-1000. Some of the lots offer multiple cases while others come as singles. A couple of highlights are pictured above, including one you probably shouldn’t stare at if your boss is passing by at the time…

Despite the size of this group - contained in 38 cardboard boxes by the time he came to value it - Lawrences specialist Alex Butcher says a lot of vesta case collectors have in the region of 2000 items. Many are in the US, but others exist all over the world, so he is expecting international online interest in the sale.

Worldwide market

Being small, portable and easy to describe, the market for vestas has prospered in the era of online trading. Founded in 1998 by a handful of enthusiasts from three countries, the International Match Safe Association now has members from the US, England, Canada, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Japan, Israel and New Zealand. Butcher has alerted the association to this latest auction.

Lawrences sold a large collection of vesta cases in 2012 but with about 300 lots, so this latest selection is much bigger.

Vesta cases appear in the auction house’s silver sales as well – on January 17 a handful from a different source is on offer, including two stand-out lots showing the amazing variety of vesta cases. A Victorian silver sentry box vesta case, enamelled with an officer of the 15th Hussars by Sampson Mordan, London 1886, is estimated at £1500-2000. Such Sampson Mordan cases are some of the most desirable in the market for collectors.

Also on January 17, a Victorian silver skull vesta case and slow match holder (combined) by HW Dee, London 1873, is guided at £2000-3000.

For more details on vestas and the market also see ATG expert Roland Arkell’s collecting guide on this website.