Knowledge is Power.
Estate pipe-buying is like purchasing in any other specialty collectible category. The knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled buyer who has cultivated a good eye, and who knows what to look for, is likely to be more successful in purchasing superb estate pipes than his inexperienced counterpart.
I would argue that it is more difficult to buy collectible pipes than it is to buy most other collectibles. For example, one doesn’t purchase an Oriental rug, put something on it, then set that something on fire. Compared to most other collectibles, pipes are subjected to strenuous use.
Their contents are set afire. Their stems are sometimes chewed on. Saliva dribbles and runs into their innards. Their tobacco chambers are reamed with various sharp tools to remove cake (accumulated carbon build-up). Depending on the skills and experience of the owner(s), these events can produce undesirable wear and tear that is difficult to detect unless you know what to look for and what to avoid.
For the last decade, many pipe purchases have occurred in an online environment where pipe images are inadequate in assisting a buyer to accurately evaluate the pipe. Sound evaluation is important because the use to which pipes are put can be damaging. A pipe’s condition is impacted by its intended use: smoking.
When you purchase an estate pipe, you purchase recognizing that the previous owners’ smoking of that pipe changed it from what it was when it was new. That change can be more or less profound, depending on the smoking skills, style, and tobacco preferences of the previous owner.
A successful estate pipe purchaser has to be able to imagine the use to which a pipe has been put. He learns through his own experience how smoking changes a pipe, can damage a pipe, or can leave a pipe relatively unscathed, or perhaps even improved.
Herein we have the purpose of this essay: to discuss how to look at estate pipes, value those pipes, then decide whether or not you want to add a prospective pipe to your collection. I’ll also discuss the various levels of risk in buying from particular seller types or in particular marketplaces, particularly in online auction environments like eBay or BriarBid.
The Economics of Estate Pipes
Perhaps the most important reason to consider buying an estate pipe is that it’s possible to get a great deal more value from an estate pipe than from a new pipe.
Good new pipes are not cheap. A good new or estate pipe meets the following criteria. It is made from properly seasoned briar, properly drilled, comfortable in the teeth and jaw, light and well-balanced, and attractively shaped and handsomely finished.
Of late, I seldom see new pipes that meet the above criteria that sell for less than $200. If you are risk-averse and inexperienced, the number is likely to be $300. Some artisanal (hand-produced by one skilled craftsman) pipes can be bought for $350, and many makers’ lowest-priced pipes sell for $500 and upwards. While these prices may seem unjustified to many buyers, when one considers the costs of time, materials, equipment, supplies, marketing, and selling, these prices soon seem justified. However, if one can’t afford to purchase for these prices, it doesn’t matter how justified the prices are.
Most tobacconists sell inexpensive “wall pipes” or “basket pipes.” These range from $50 to $100. While there are undoubtedly good smokers among them, I have examined many of these pipes over the years . Most fall far short in quality terms. If you purchase one of these pipes, you are gambling, and I believe the odds are against you. Chances are that your smoking experience with one of these pipes may turn you off to pipe smoking.
Generally, estates in good condition offer better value because, like most used products, estate pipes depreciate with use. All use is not equal, however. Some pipe smokers own hundreds of pipes and rarely smoke most of the pipes in their collection. Other pipe smokers own just a few pipes and smoke them all day-in and day-out. Thus, some estates are re-sold after having barely been smoked, whereas others have been smoked to death.
Smoking style impacts condition. Some pipe smokers puff at a ferocious rate, charring the inside of bowls. Others puff slowly, hardly heating their pipes up at all. The rate and intensity at which a pipe is smoked can cause the burn temperature to vary as much as 240 degrees Celsius (ERMALA AND HOLSTI, Burning Temperatures of Tobacco, 1955).
Given that the base burning temperature of a pipe being smoked is 380 degrees C, the temperature variation is significant, and the top end of the temperature spectrum can easily char or burn out a bowl.
An experienced buyer who knows what to look for can make a pretty informed guess as to how much and how intensely a pipe was smoked, so it is important to look for clues of hot smoking. I’ll discuss that later.
If you know how to evaluate an estate pipe, you can buy more pipe, dollar-for-dollar, in the estate market than in the new market, especially if the pipe is being purchased to smoke. Remember, the minute you put fire to a new pipe, it is no longer new. It is an estate – a smoked estate.
This is especially true when one pipe smoker buys an estate directly from another pipe smoker or collector. Because there is no middle-man, the profit that a reseller requires to be in business is not included in the sales price. For example, I recently purchased a couple of Comoy Blue Riband estates from a fellow collector and friend who charged me $125 for each pipe. Had I purchased those pipes from a reseller or at auction, I would almost certainly have paid $250 to $300 – and possible more – for each of these pipes.
Even when one buys from a reseller, one is still likely to get a better value from the estate pipe than from a new pipe because most first-rate resellers thoroughly clean and refurbish a pipe before they sell it. So the pipe is made to look more like new when the pipe is purchased through a good reseller.
Resellers are justified in charging a higher price for an expertly refurbished estate pipe that has been made to look nearly new. Although cleaning and refurbishing is not rocket science, it does require time, materials, equipment, and expertise. When you buy from an expert reseller, you’re paying for hard-won refurbishment expertise and experience.
Resellers also have additional costs. Right off the top, they must often pay percentages of sale to eBay and or PayPal.
Resellers – especially those who deal with specialty collectors of rare vintage pipes – need to get it right or their reputation in the collector marketplace will suffer. Their ability to refresh a prized estate adds value for which they deserve compensation.
In the past, it has been a rule of thumb that estate pipes sell for approximately half of their new price, but some valuable estates are no longer made and their relationship to the original sales price is irrelevant. This ratio appears to be changing; estate pipe prices are creeping upwards in relationship to the new sales price. While new and estate prices will probably not converge, except in the rare and high-grade collectible markets, I would not be surprised to see refurbished estates approach a 70% to 75% benchmark compared to new, especially in the vintage pipe markets.