Collector Nigel Ross in his London home.

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He has been collecting vesta cases for 35 years and is a member of IMSA (International Match Safe Association). A large part of his 6800-strong collection is with the Birmingham Museum.

Here he tells ATG about life as a collector.


Group of vestas, including a railway ticket to Parno, all by Georg Adam Scheid of Vienna. Ross says the “quality of his enamelling is on par with that of Fabergé”.

ATG: What drew you into collecting vesta cases?

Nigel Ross: When I started collecting some 35 years ago my business necessitated me travelling around the country every 4-6 weeks. While doing this I would pop into any antique shop I passed, rarely coming out without some small piece which took my fancy. After a few years of doing this my wife was nervous that our home would start looking like an antiques shop and urged me to focus on just one thing. Having at that time more vesta cases than anything else, that is what I chose.

What do you look for when making a purchase?

Initially I would buy any piece I did not have (and could at the time afford). As the collection grew I realised just how many different vesta cases there were and I started considering more what each piece added to the collection. But basically, if I did not have anything similar I would normally try and buy it.

Nowadays, as the collection has grown so much, I can be somewhat more selective, but I am still buying, on average, two pieces a week, all of which are sufficiently different to warrant purchasing.


UK royal commemorative vestas.

Where do you find items to buy?

Initially I started by going to Portobello Road Market every Saturday. A dealer there told me about a Vesta auction in Iowa, USA. Then someone I met there encouraged me to attend the founding meeting of IMSA (International Match Safe Association) in Chicago, which I have been a member of ever since. A few years later three of us purchased a collection of 3500 vesta cases, of which I kept some 800, which really kick-started my collection.

Nowadays, apart from buying online and at auction, I know most of the main dealers and they are normally kind enough to contact me when they get an interesting piece. I have also had the privilege of being allowed to pick and choose pieces I wanted from four major collections that fellow collectors were disposing of, which helped add some very special pieces to my collection.

How large is your collection?

It is now more than 6800 pieces, over 5000 of which are on long-term loan to Birmingham Museum. Although we were not allowed to stipulate how many of them are out on display at any one time, the museum has an undertaking that the complete collection is accessible on demand to any collector wishing to see it.

How do you display your collection?

I would only have collected something if I could have them on display and enjoy seeing them. I have a smallish display (500 pieces) in my Florida home and a larger display (1000+ pieces) in London. The rest are with the museum (see answer above).


Group of animal vesta cases including vestas shaped like dog kennels, creels (two with fish and one with a hare) and a rabbit hutch. All by Thomas Johnson.

How do you classify your habit?

There is always a thrill in finding a piece that you, and your fellow collectors, never knew existed. There being so many different vestas, it is hard to classify what the best of the best is. For UK collectors I suppose that has to be the only known gold Samson Mordan sentry box, which came up, many years ago, in a group lot at Sotheby’s New York. Is it my favourite piece? I would have hated not to have got it, but there are other pieces I find aesthetically more pleasing.


Samson Mordan sentry box vesta cases. Ross says: “When I started collecting I was told there were 12 different sentry box vestas and I was challenged to get them all. As you can see, I have 25 different regular sized ones, two large ones and others in the same vein (all by Samson Mordan). The rarest are the gold one and the gurkha.”

Is there an item you are still looking for?

There are several pieces in other collections I would very much like to own, but one cannot have everything, especially in a field where there are so many. While they are still collecting it is very difficult to persuade a collector to part with a key piece, so, normally, one has to wait until they decide the time is right to divest themselves of the collection.

At auction every few months or so an exceptional piece comes up – often something that one did not know even existed. The difficulty then is deciding exactly how far one is willing to go to get it!

What is the most you have spent?

Most vestas can be bought in the hundreds or under. The best can go into the thousands and Fabergé can go into five-figure sums. I don’t know how far I would have gone to get the gold sentry box, but fortunately I was not tested.

Have you sold anything and why?

At the height of the boom in Russian pieces I decided to put a Fabergé cloisonne enamel vesta with an en plein enamel picture of the Admiralty up to auction.

It sold for £50,000, part of which I used to buy a collection of 12 Samson Mordan sentries. That vesta is now in the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg.


This large wooden box and table vestas made out of stone and brick are all Fabergé. Ross adds: “A similar brick with snakes is in the UK royal collection. Their snakes are gold rather than silver, but my snakes are more detailed.”

I am not planning on selling any of the collection, as the intention is that my wife will donate the collection to Birmingham Museum under the AIL (Assets in Lieu) scheme, the Arts Council having confirmed several years ago that they believe the collection is of national importance.


Group of French enamel vestas, most with sloping lids. Ross adds: “They are enamelled all the way round and on the inside and some are quite risqué.”

What advice would you give a young collector?

Firstly, don’t start a collection with the aim of making money, odds are it won’t happen.

Only start collecting if collecting is in your blood, and, ideally, only if you have found something to collect that you are passionate about.

Finally, buy the best pieces you can afford – quality over quantity. The better pieces are always the hardest to find, the basics will always be there.