Grading Cigar Box labels

Why grade cigar box labels? Before answering this question, we must first look at the history of why grading services came about in the first place.

It all started back the early 1960’s when people began to invest serious money in collectibles, such as; coins and stamps.  Wanting to get the most value out of their collectible, sellers were usually bias in describing the condition of their collectible.   Eventually, there became a rampant practice of over grading and in some cases out right scams of unsuspecting buyers.

Grading services soon sprang to life in order to handle this problem of over grading. The grading services provided unbiased experts in the field, a consistent set of standards, and the ability to protect the collectible so as to prevent further deterioration.

It wasn’t long afterwards that buyers of collectibles insisted on having their items graded.  Eventually, a collectibles ‘Grade’ started to determine the overall worth of a collectible. A higher grade in a collectible could mean thousands of dollars more to the collectibles overall worth. In addition, as the grading services became more sophisticated they began offering additional services such as:  price guides, population reports, daily trading sheets, and investment guidelines for buying and selling.

Today, collectibles such as: coins, stamps, baseball cards, and even cigar box labels, can all be graded by an independent third party grading service.

So should you consider grading your Cigar Box Labels? You should consider grading based on the reasons given above.  But in addition, grading also provides the buyer a level of confidence that the item is authentic, and also provides the seller with a well packaged marketable item.

Today, many buyers will only buy a collectible if it is graded.  There are many reputable grading services including:  Global Cigar Label Grading Service (GCLGS), Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), and Numismatic Guarantee Corporation (NCG) to name only a few.

What should a collector/seller look for in a grading service?  Reputation, cost of using the service, and the value of the collectible after it is graded should all be considered.

Is there any reason not to grade a collectible? Yes, you should consider the tradeoff between the costs of grading versus the value of the collectible itself.


The Wild West and Cigar Advertising.

The Old West, often referred to as the Wild West, encompasses the period 1865 – 1885. During this time, thousands of pioneers pushed their way westward in search of land,  some in search of gold and silver, and some to escape the law.  Geographically, the “Old West” applies to those states west of the Mississippi River.

From outlaws to gunfighters, to the American cowboy on the frontier, the Old West provided great subject matter for cigar box labels. The tall tales of the old west and the famous men that were pictured on the cigar box label were enough to attract a cigar smoker.

Meeting the demands of the many Cowboys there were dance halls and saloons. They almost always featured gambling, smoking, and prostitution.  The towns grew quickly, often levying taxes on the cigars provided to the cowboys.

It was here in these old west towns that many famous characters gained or bolstered their reputations. Men such as Col. Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson, John Wesley Hardin and dozens of others.  Cigar Manufacturers were quick to cash in on this fame, creating colorful images of these infamous characters in order to attract customers.

Cigar Box Labels: Are They a Good Investment?

Is a Vintage Cigar Box Label a good investment?  That is a hard question to answer.  Vintage cigar box labels are definitely a unique investment. They also possess several qualities that true investors look for, such as:  are they  a true antique?  are they rare? and do they have a worth?  In addition, there are price guides, selling venues, and people willing to buy and sell at the right price.

However, these reasons alone are not quite enough for the avid investor.  People that invest for a living will tell you that there are three things they look for in a good investment:  growth over time, minimum risk, and ability to execute a sell.

So, let’s take a look at each of these.

Growth over time:

The best place to start is the Instone100. This is a blue chip index of 100 highly sought after vintage  cigar box labels. Average selling prices for each cigar label in the index have been tracked and reported annually for the past ten years. Since they have started tracking, one can readily see, as a whole, that they have gone up steadily each year since 1994.

This charts show that if you invested $4,000 in 1994 the same 100 labels in 2010 are now worth $34,000.  This is a whopping increase of 850%.!

Minimum Risk:

Supposedly the Instone 100  index is an indicator of the entire cigar label market due to its wide range of labels. The labels range  from the relatively inexpensive to a few in the thousands of dollars. In addition, the on-line Astral web site also tracks the recent Market trends in labels that go up in price. The chart below shows, over the past year that many more labels are going up in price then are going down in price.

Ability to Execute a Sell:

The key here is the ability to sell a cigar label for the price that either a price guide or an index says its worth. In this regards, cigar labels are much like coins, and stamps and not so much like rare original works of art.

There are only a few places to sell a cigar label: at an online auction sites like E-bay, at online trading sites like Astral, at auction houses like Heritage auctions, at dealer stores, at antique stores, and at collectible shows. Dealers in this sense are  synonymous for ‘ stock broker’  (or dealer price), while auction houses are bidding venues. All have their advantages and disadvantages. Dealers will usually buy rare or well sought after labels. However, they only offer prices that are lower than a ‘book price’ or ‘retail price’ because they have to make a profit.

Auction houses like ’ Heritage Auction’  usually try to set minimum bid prices, with the hopes the cigar labels will sell over this starting price. Online auction houses like E-bay have no regulations, so they tend to be the low end of selling prices.

Is There Risk: Well, the saying goes  “the only sure things in life are death and taxes” .  There is risk in any investment.  However, the experts that have tracked cigar box label prices over the past twenty years will tell you that as an investment they have  shown slow steady growth, and they can provide data that backs this up. The data shows they are a better investment then if you put the money in the stock market.

How would you know what a good investment opportunity is?   In the business world this is defined as a financial investment that makes a good profit. Millions of people invest in antique, coins, stamps and every other kind of collectible for this reason. Cigar box labels are on par with these kinds of investments.

After having made the case for investing in cigar box labels, I personally would never take one persons advice on an investment opportunity unless I got all the facts. Talk to the people that buy and sell cigar labels; use the internet for research, and start small until you are comfortable.

The best thing about Cigar Box Labels –  it is a hobby for many people and an investment you can actually enjoy while they keep going up in price.

Where to start a Cigar Box Label Collection: Instone100, Cigar Label 500

If you are new to Cigar Box Label Collecting,  the task of finding information and knowing where to start can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.

Acquiring a cigar box label is easier than ever. Every day,  on-line dealer sites and on-line auction sites  sell hundreds of cigar box labels  and many people can even run across cigar labels  at antique stores, estate sales, and garage sales.  Collectors can choose between literally tens of thousands of label titles at a variety of prices. Information is everywhere – type in’ cigar box label’  on ‘Google’ and you will get dozens of cigar label sites.  They include: cigar box label books,  price guides, forums,   blogs,  and ‘You-Tube’  videos, all available for the curious collector.

There also exists two cigar box label lists (Indexes) that can be helpful: the Instone100 and the Cigar Label 500.

The oldest most respected index is the Instone 100. This list has been around for over 10 years, and is a compilation of very desirable and highly sought-after cigar label art representing a diverse sampling of themes. This index is updated annually for price changes and can be used as a tool to track future price movements. It is a product of years of research, surveys, and discussions with other dealers and collectors. The list includes images like: Andy Gump, Cupids Web, Croaker, Club House,  and Round-up.

The newest index is the Cigar Label (CL)  500. Developed  by a group of 20 or so veteran collectors  (called The Group), the CL-500 has been their labor of love for the past six years. The The CL- 500 is composed of many highly sought after cigar labels that didn’t get onto the original instone100 list.  This list contain images that veteran cigar label enthusiasts  enjoy having in their collection.  Cigar Labels on the list include: Covered wagon, Big wolf, Bank Note, General Hartranft, Kleine’s Buzzer, La Boda, Nebraska girl, Speculator, Pony post ,and Yankees just to name a few. This list is a diverse mixture of Inners and Outers, in a reasonable price ranges, and a variety of themes. A few of the Cigar Labels on the list include: Covered wagon, Big wolf,  Nebraska girl, Speculator, and  Pony Post.

Both lists can be found at

So now you know where to start. The next question is -How do you know if you are getting a good deal? Both the Instone100 and CL-500   have been thoroughly researched for the latest list prices. This is the price any collector should be able to acquire these labels for in the average condition.

Fremasonry and Cigar Box Labels

It’s amazing how Cigar box labels artists had a never ending source of subject matter to draw from for cigar box labels. By the late 19th century no subject was off limits for a cigar label artists as long as the image would sell cigars. Hence, Freemasonry became perfect subject matter because of its richness in symbolism and its appeal to the many men that belonged to these fraternal Organizations.

The occult symbolism in Freemasonry came directly from a fountainhead of ancient Egyptian mysticism and contained hidden meanings that the cigar label artists loved to use on cigar labels.

Take for example the Inner Cigar Box Label Trimble Lodge “117”. A holy bible sits on an alter of masonry, and upon the bible sits a square and a compass.  If you take a closer look you will also see the letter “G”, an all seeing eye, three candles in the shape of a triangle, a trowel and a slipper.

All these symbols have dualistic meanings. The square, the compass and the trowel were all tools used by the masons in their work but they also represented a more hidden meaning of the righteousness and divine. A compass represented the heavens or mans wisdom of conduct, the square represented the earth or mans virtue of conduct (morality), and the trowel represented the spreading of brotherly love and affection.  The “G” and all Seeing Eye represented god.  The three candles in the shape of a triangle  represented the great first cause of truth. The slipper represented man’s protective influence for his family. Together they are the symbols of revelation, righteousness, and man’s redemption.

Stone Lithography More Than a Drawing on A Stone

Most cigar box label enthusiasts have a fairly knowledgeable understanding of the lithographic process. Alois Senefelder, the inventor of stone lithography (1776), created a process of drawing images on to a stone surface using greasy inks or crayons. Printing ink was then applied to the stone surface which adhered to the greasy drawing while being repelled by the wet areas. Later chromo-lithography was used where a different stone was used for each color.
What is not too common knowledge is during the mid 19th century there were actually other methods for creating images on a flat stone surface. Many lithographs, including cigar box labels, used a combination of methods. Two examples were Transfer lithography and Photo lithography.
In transfer lithography the design is drawn on special transfer paper and does not require the artist to reverse his or her drawing.  The drawing is made on paper and transferred to a heated stone by pressure.  Next, the surface of the stone untouched by grease is desensitized to it, and the portions drawn upon are fixed against spreading by treatment with a gum arabic and nitric acid solution.The paper image was then transferred (etched) into the stone.
With the invention of photography (1839), a Photo-lithographic process was invented. This discovery eventually lead to the use of the halftone process (the act of breaking down the original photograph into dots of varying sizes that would be suitable to press reproduction). In the Photo-lithographic process the stone surface was treated with light sensitive chemicals (abumen).  A pattern was laid on the stone then exposed to intense light chemically etching the image in half tones on to the stone.  Henry Talbot used the first halftone screen  for the reproduction of photographs around 1852. About 33 years later, Frederick Ives, an American, designed the first practical halftone screen that consisted of two exposed glass negatives with line scribed on each of them. They were then cemented together so that the scribed lines would cross at right angles . This halftone process allowed the reproduction of original photographs into the pattern, thus eliminating the need to draw or engrave them onto a stone or printing plate . This was the a precursor to the Photo-mechanical process, used at the beginning of the 20 th century.
At the beginning of the 20th century techniques improved,  eventually giving way to Photo-mechanical process. Here the photographic image was projected through a special screen and on to a photochemically sensitized printing plate (zinc).

Cigar Box Label Prices What Do They really Mean?

Let’s talk about what pricing Cigar Box labels really means. Recent history is always the best indicator of price. However, because thousands of labels are rare – meaning one of a kind or very few in existence- the price can only be whatever the owner is willing to let the label go for. If a buyer buys it, then that is the price at that point in time. Buying cigar labels is only done in one of two ways – buying them outright from another dealer or collector for an agreed upon price,  or bidding on them in an auction. Unfortunately, auctions can sometimes be a source of anxiety for the buyer. The buyer sees a label and they want it. Unless it is a graded label, they may be unsure of the condition, which makes them unsure of how much to bid.  Obviously, cheaper is better.  However, once they get involved , the excitement can cause a bidding war.  My advice – do the research, and decide on the condition before hand, then set yourself a limit.

When researching prices, most collectors/buyers use only a few trusted resources to price their cigar labels.  I’ll mention just a couple that are used most often.  The first resource is the soft back edition  “The Price Guide Book of Cigar Label Art”. Versions of this book have been around since 1994. The guide has a fair amount of information on the history of labels, and its prices are a strong indicator of how rare a label is.  The nice thing about this price guide is; in each annual edition the prices are updated, based  on the latest selling trends.  In addition, it tracks a Blue Chip cigar label index called  “The Instone 100 “.  Published by Instone – a well respected Cigar Label dealer, it is a compilation of very desirable and highly sought after Cigar labels and can be used as tool to track future price movements.

Another trusted resource is the ‘Astral On-line Price Guide’. It has been around since 2005, and is highly respected among buyers and sellers. There are several good reasons for this: first of all, Astral tracks real selling prices from most of the major auction sites,  second, they have a methodology that prevents wide fluctuations in prices (based on any one individual sale),  and they list prices based on condition. They also state, up front, that selling prices should be based on whatever the buyer and seller can agree on.


There are a few other price guides available today but they are either not as comprehensive,  or their prices do not reflect  recent selling prices as the two aforementioned guides.  A few sellers price their labels based on the highest price they can find. This is unfortunate because this will only fool them into thinking they their label is worth more then it really is.

Pricing for rarer cigar box labels is very much like the pricing of respected artwork. That is where  price guides are at best only a guide.  If there aren’t enough buyers, then it is whatever the market will bear.  One thing to note – rarer labels will always sell. Why? It’s basic supply and demand. When you have a collectible that is truly rare, the numbers of collectors far outnumber the pieces available.

If you think Cigar Labels will continue to rise in price, you would be correct based on the Instone100 index.  However, if you are one of those people hanging on to the more common labels (labels that come in larger quantities), plan on waiting.  Prices are based on many factors including: supply and demand and the economy . This is where guides can help you – to determine trends.  If certain labels are not selling, or they are priced lower then you think they are worth, then you may want to hang on to them or even buy more while the prices are still cheap.  Many older collectors would rather hand them down to their descendents because they know the prices will eventually go up.

Rare Cigar Label  – Price at whatever the Market will bear            Common Cigar Label – Guides are more accurate

In summary, if you are trying to sell or buy more common pieces, then trust the guides that have the most recent pricing. If you have a rarer piece, then price it at whatever you are willing to let it go for.  However, like anything else, if you want it sold you must be willing to take whatever the market will bare.