A week ago this coming Saturday morning, I attended the New York Pipe Show. While it is a relatively small show compared to some others, I’ve always enjoyed being there, principally because, in addition to artisans and pipe vendors, it is a place where collectors come to show and trade pipes. I’ve found it to be a show where I’ve been able to pick up some marvelous pipes at very good prices or for trade. One of the collectors who I always look forward to seeing is the noted Comoy collector Bob Herbert.
Bob and I had been in touch via email before the show, and I had been looking forward to seeing him because he always brings interesting and unusual pipes. I’ve bought several unique Comoy Blue Ribands from him and one of the most beautiful old BBB silver-inlaid cuttys that I have ever encountered.
Early Saturday morning, I ran into Bob at the hotel’s Starlight Restaurant when my friend, Jon Guss, and I met for breakfast. Ever the thoughtful friend, Bob invited me to come and share a chair at his table when I tired of wandering the show floor looking at pipes.
Bob has been a reliable and credible source when I have needed to learn about or confirm some Comoy historical esoterica, but his expertise extends far beyond Comoyiana. He also possesses a great deal of expertise regarding old English and French factory pipes. Bob’s knowledge is rooted in his own collection, one that is both high-quality and reputedly rich in both scope and numbers.
There is nothing like seeing, holding, or comparing many pipes, especially when one’s collection is not limited solely to the big names like Dunhill, Comoy, GBD, BBB, etc. There were many other pipe-making concerns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of which are relatively unknown to most of us. The fact that they are unknown to us does not in any way minimize the quality of these pipes, however, or the extent to which their owners loved them.
As I milled past Bob’s table, he asked me if I would watch his table while he retrieved some coffee and stretched his legs. I was happy to oblige because I had not yet had a chance to look at the large and varied assortment of pipes Bob had brought to the show for sale or trade. Grateful, I made my way behind the table. My view was now unobstructed, but I had to snatch pipes from his tubs with the speed of a striking rattlesnake; there were so many hands sorting through his pipes.
Because I was seated behind Bob’s table, people assumed that his pipes were my pipes. As I sat there, I heard the same questions repeated over and over again: “Do you have any Barlings?” “Are there any Dunhills?” “Where are the GBDs?” Over and over again, browsers asked for the big names. It was like all the other pipes before me did not exist. Without particular stampings, they were wallflowers and would not be asked to dance, let alone be taken home.
Finally, the crowd thinned out. I began to really look at the pipes before me. While there were more than few pipes that had been nearly smoked to death or had their rims beaten to smithereens while having the ash knocked out of them by their smokers decades before, I found more than few gems hidden in Bob’s well-tossed briar salads. Three of those gems have since made their way into my collection, and one of them – depicted here – is the subject of the post.
For years I have been looking for a small Dunhill Shell or Comoy Blue Riband lovat, but to no avail. As I sifted through Bob’s pipes, I began looking for lovats. Inside one of Bob’s tubs marked “Old English” I found the lovat you see depicted in this post. With “ABERDEEN” stamped boldly across its bowl front, it is more properly a Scottish pipe, not English, although it may have been made in France or England; many pipes sold in the UK early in the 20th Century were, in fact, made elsewhere. (I hope to find out which factory made this pipe by further research.)
At 4.5 inches in length and weighing just 24 grams, this pipe is exactly what I have hoped to find. For all practical purposes, the pipe was likely smoked just one or two times. Possessed of a creamy white, threaded bone tenon, the crisp vulcanite mouthpiece lines up at a perfect ninety-degree angle to the axis of the bowl chamber. The nomenclature stampings are as crisp as one would see on a brand new pipe.
This lovat is stamped “P. Mitchell, Aberdeeen” on the right side and “The Lord Sempill Pipe” on the other. This beautiful little lovat sparked no little interest from both Jon Guss and me. We both started trying to learn more about its origins. Jon’s extraordinary research revealed that the pipe was almost certainly sold by Peter Mitchell:
“A closer review of the Aberdeen city and phone directories shows that Peter Mitchell started business sometime in the very early 1880s, and established first a shop on Market street, and then one on Union. The business continued at both the Union and Market addresses for decades. The Union address last appears in the 1962 directory (and then apparently was shuttered), and the Market address last appears in the 1977 directory. The inference is that the business was closed at that time, and after almost a century of operation. Check out [this] vintage picture that provides a peek-a-boo view of P. Mitchell in its prime. All pure supposition that this is the right “P Mitchell”. All I can say is that if your “P. Mitchell” was based in Aberdeen, then this is almost certainly the guy.” (Jon Guss)
What is the probability that there was a second P. Mitchell operating in Aberdeen at the same time as the above-referenced Mitchell? Could there have been a second Mitchell who possessed the stature to produce a pipe named after one of Scotland’s oldest peerages? I doubt it. This pipe’s provenance is almost certainly established. What of the other stamping? Why name the pipe after a Scottish laird?
The Lords Sempill have an auspicious – and checkered – history. The first Lord Sempill was killed in the Battle of Flodden in 1513, having been made a peer of the realm in circa 1489. Subsequent Lords Sempill have been Ambassadors, aids-de-camp to Kings, representatives of Scotland in the House of Lords, and, in one case (William Forbes-Sempill), a spy and traitor who was not executed because Winston Churchill intervened.
A prosecution would have embarrassed the Royal Family and, more importantly, revealed to the Japanese that British Intelligence had cracked the cypher codes of its diplomatic service.
The traitor Sempill’s father was quite a different stripe. In his lifetime, he rose to become aid-de-camp to King George V. It is this Lord Sempill that had the title when this pipe was produced and sold.
What is the point of this meandering, byzantine yarn?
Had I looked only for nomenclature when I pawed through Bob Herbert’s show pipes, e.g. for Dunhill, Comoy, Barling, etc., it is very likely that this exquisite little lovat would still be ensconced in a dusty white tub in some closet or cabinet at Bob Herbert’s Delaware home. It’s savory Virginias-smoking properties would still be undiscovered country.
Neither Jon Guss nor I would have learned of P. Mitchell’s Aberdeen tobacco shop, a shop that lasted 99 years before its 1977 closing. I would know nothing of a Scottish noble family’s 500-year story of bravery, service, and betrayal.
I am a storyteller, but I’m also a story-lover. To some extent, like many other pipe collectors who troll pipe show floors looking only for pipes from well-known houses, I have been blinded to new stories by old and well-known stories: Comoy, GBD, BBB, Loewe, and Dunhill stories I have come to know and love in this hobby.
It is only when I started really looking at the pipes in those tubs – and not their stampings – that new doors opened. If I see another pipe from P. Mitchell’s shop in Aberdeen, you can bet I will make it mine. I suspect if you come across one that you will give it your full attention, too.