They are small, lovely and somewhat unnecessary – the sum of which explains the modern appeal of these ornamental matchboxes. No one has ever needed a vesta case – or matchsafe, as it is called Stateside – but to own one is to take something prosaic and make it glamorous. It’s no wonder these antiques are finding a new appreciation.
“I’ve sold thousands over the years,” says London antiques dealer Daniel Bexfield. “I know collectors who are looking for rare examples, but we also have customers looking for their first one. Fashionable young men who wear three-piece suits like to hang them on watch chains.” Bexfield has a 9ct gold piece (£675) by Birmingham maker Britton & Sons from the 1920s; with a tactile wave-like texture engrained on both sides, it wouldn’t look amiss amid modern-day Gucci or Bottega Veneta collections.
Vesta cases were a craze from around 1885 to 1920. The work by the most sought-after makers – from revered British brands such as Alfred Dunhill and Asprey and 19th-century silversmith Sampson Mordan to French art nouveau silversmith Charles Murat and Louis-Oscar Roty – can command well over £1,000, while imperial Russian examples by the likes of Fabergé can fetch five figures. Guilloché enamel cases by the famous jewellery house are particularly prized; in 2015 Sotheby’s sold a striking Fabergé lime-green flip-lid case for £5,250, and Washington state-based dealer John Atzbach, a leading authority on Russian art and antiques, has a turn-of-the-century Fabergé silver and teal-blue rectangular version priced at $28,500.
While Russian makers tended towards glitz, British designs are often quirky. Take a rare 1900 piece by Sampson Mordan & Company that Steppes Hill Farm Antiques sold for £1,550; the façade was designed to look like a first-class South West Railway ticket from Waterloo to Ascot. Mordan is a favourite of UK collector Nigel Ross, who has amassed over 6,000 vesta cases – “from those used for advertising to Fabergé”, he says. “I also collect British silver, and the ultimate example is a sentry box by Mordan.” This series of enamelled cases showing “Soldiers of the Queen” was produced around the time of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. “When I started collecting, vesta folklore said there were 12 different versions,” adds Ross, “but I now have 23 of them, including the only known one in gold.” An example depicting a soldier from the 1st Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteer Corps was sold for £6,000 by Steppes Hill Farm Antiques, which currently has an 1884 silver horse’s head case (£1,950).
Another good source is Newcastle upon Tyne-based AC Silver. Its extensive offerings include a c1868 Belgian silver case depicting a roulette table, with a lucky-charm motif in each corner, as well as several Birmingham-made Victorian versions: one (£1,495) modelled in the form of a wild boar and another (£795) with a quirky panel depicting a tobacco pipe and the text “Just one more”.
“The best cases are objets d’art,” says Eleanor Bennett of The Vintage Compact Shop. “The most coveted theme is the female nude. We avoid enamel nudes – which are often not enamel but laminated scenes applied to antique silver cases – and concentrate on sourcing examples fashioned from the silver itself.” One such notable example, created by Murat in the late 1800s, shows a figure frolicking in the sea on matching silver cigarette and vesta cases (£2,250). Still in their original presentation box, they were miraculously never used. (Such pristine pieces are rare as vestas are customarily well worn.)
These much-used match holders were also promotional tools in their day, with everyone from biscuit manufacturers to farming twine factories putting their emblems on them. Bennett, for example, has a silver art nouveau piece (£1,200) by Louis-Oscar Roty created to mark the opening of the Mariani winery in Paris. “It’s fascinating,” says Bennett. “The wine had an added ingredient: coca. Fans included Queen Victoria, Pope Leo XIII and Thomas Edison, who said Mariani wine helped him stay awake longer.”
It’s this kind of cultural relevance that appeals to serious collectors, such as Carol and Stephen Brener, whose donations to New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum between 1978 and 1982 make up the backbone of its 4,200-strong collection. Available to browse online, it ranges from Fabergé enamel to American silver, such as a c1890 coiled rattlesnake by Newark maker William B Kerr & Company (a version of which can be found for $875 at Arizona-based RMC Antiques).
Another prodigious collector is George Sparacio from New Jersey, who began collecting cardboard matchcovers as a child, amassing an amazing quarter of a million. “I now have close to 4,000 matchsafes,” he says. “My most notable is President Teddy Roosevelt’s personal one bearing an emblem of two polo players on horseback, made by Tiffany & Co. It is one of only four made,” he explains. “One edge is inscribed 28 July 1888 to mark the first match his team, Oyster Bay, played against Meadowbrook. They won 6-1.” Talk about the perfect match…