The rooftop of Boundary, Sir Terence Conran’s gastro hotel, is one of the most charming places in Shoreditch. During the summer, staff in straw hats move among the tables pouring glasses of water from metal jugs, more in the manner of waiters serving at an alfresco party on the Côte d’Azur than in E2. But the greatest pleasure it affords is to sit and linger over a cigar, the fragrant blue smoke of Havana wafting gently over the rooftops of east London.
Fitting then, that Boundary has the most idiosyncratic humidor you are ever likely to encounter. Imagine a three-wheeled wooden boat about the size of a large Victorian pram. On its prow is a figurehead in silver, its face creased in a rictus of pain reminiscent of the work of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. Standing on the deck of the boat is a silver pachyderm – part dinosaur, part elephant – which when cranked by a handle rises on a wooden box, with another smaller box ascending from the creature’s back. An interpretation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Count of Montecristo, the humidor came filled with 250 different Montecristos, including the Maravillas No 1 that was rolled expressly for it.
I was with Conran in Havana the night he bid for it in the annual auction of rare and unique cigars and humidors. It was the culmination of the Festival Habano, the week-long Woodstock of the cigar that takes place each February in aid of Cuban medical care.
The idea for a charity cigar auction was born in England in 1993, when the late Nicholas Freeman – owner of Hunters & Frankau, the importer of all Cuban cigars into the UK – held a dinner at Claridge’s to celebrate the launch of the Cohiba Siglo range of cigars. The star lot was a box of 50 of Fidel Castro’s favourite Cohiba Lanceros, signed by Castro himself. This was when cigars became a fashionable accessory, rediscovered by a new generation.
“My father had been going to Cuba since the early 1960s,” says Freeman’s daughter Jemma, who now runs the family firm. “He had a great affection for the island, and he wanted to do something for the people, so he decided to auction a few special boxes of cigars and donate the proceeds to the Cuban health service.”
In 1994, Marven R Shanken, publisher of Cigar Aficionado, decided to host what he called the “Dinner of the Century” in Paris, and boxes of cigars signed by Castro were again offered for auction. One of the buyers was Edward Sahakian, proprietor of Davidoff of London. “It was a fantastic evening that I will never forget,” says Sahakian. “For a cigar lover, having a box of Cohibas signed by Castro is like owning a Shakespeare folio signed by the playwright himself. I bought a special box of 50 cigars, a Cohiba Grand Corona. The other day I opened it and the aroma of the cigars transported me to heaven.” At more than 9in long, these Cohiba cigars were one of the largest sizes – real broomsticks of tobacco.
“Mine was number one of just 10 boxes, and it came with a beautiful certificate saying, ‘These cigars are the first of the new type, which is not available for distribution yet.’ In fact, it never became available,” he says.
However, while monster Cohiba Grand Coronas never made it into production, the concept of the auction of commissioned boxes of cigars became a phenomenon. Owners of early Castro-signed boxes were fortunate, as a couple of years later it became clear he would sign no more boxes unless they were auctioned in Havana. This formed the nucleus of what would become the Festival Habano.
Perhaps the most remarkable of those early festival auctions was in 1999, by which time the cigar boom had become a frenzy. It fell to the cigar aficionado Simon Chase, the marketing director of Hunters & Frankau, to auction five lots, with the support of Castro. “I was in a blind panic, I was numb, I did not eat or drink,” Chase recalls. One of the more unusual lots of the auction was a sculpture of the ancient Taino god of tobacco, Cemi, from whom, when a button in his navel was pressed, cigars would emerge. It went for $150,000; in total the evening raised a seven-figure sum. “I was hugged by Fidel Castro; he couldn’t believe what was going on. When I got off the stage I was a limp rag and vowed never to do it again,” says Chase.
Inevitably, Chase has presided over all but one of the subsequent auctions, and even though Castro stopped signing lots, the five- or six-figure sums achieved remain more than respectable, reflecting the quality of the pieces. The work of such artisans as José Ernesto Aguilera, creator of Conran’s pachyderm humidor, is renowned for its impressive levels of detail, quality and craftsmanship.
But the most compelling reason for the continued popularity of these humidors is the cigars. Sometimes these vessels contain cigars in sizes that have not been made for decades. To ensure they are faithfully reproduced, stocks of unused vintage bands are bought from collectors. The cigars are made by remarkable rollers, who are accorded grades depending on ability and experience. Until my most recent visit to the factories in Havana, the highest grade that I was aware of was nine. However, after much questioning, I discovered that while nine is technically the highest level, there is a actually a level beyond that, attained by only a few specialised workers, who take a series of examinations. For instance, in the H Upmann factory this is called the Brigade Piramide and numbers just 28 super rollers. It is from this elite cadre that one or two rollers per factory are selected to make the cigars for the auction humidors. As I discovered when I met three rollers at the El Laguito home factory of Cohiba, this role is a source of immense pride. Their skill is reflected in the prices of the finished products, which command a huge premium.
There is another aspect to the annual auctions, which you might call a trickle-down effect. While in Cuba last year, I visited Aguilera’s atelier and saw that he was at work on special dwarf-wardrobe-like chests emblazoned with the Hoyo de Monterrey insignia. These boxes are miniaturised replicas of the large chests in which thousands of cigars were packed in the past. While they may lack the élan of his pachyderm humidor, or his 2011 Romeo humidor, which resembled Havana’s Grand Theatre and sold for €85,000, they are more widely available, less expensive and suit many interiors.
It is also possible to enjoy the auction cigars themselves, if you are prepared to wait a little. In much the same way that Ferrari incorporates elements of F1 technology into its road cars, many of the most interesting cigars of the 21st century were first seen in the grand auction. In 2001, the Trinidad Franciscano was part of one of the lots auctioned; a couple of years later, in 2003, it reappeared as the Trinidad Reyes, a pleasant 15-minute cigar to be enjoyed with morning coffee.
Indeed, 2003 was an interesting year: the auction saw the birth of Cohiba’s Siglo VI, a chunky drainpipe of fine tobacco that is now a firm favourite. Slightly less generously built, the Montecristo C was also auctioned in the same year, and reappeared as a limited edition in 2005. In 2004, the monster torpedo, the San Cristóbal Muralla, was launched and went into production until its discontinuation in 2011. The Montecristo Edmundo, which delivered a chunkier ring gauge in a popular marque, was first available in the same auction of 2004. Other notable smokes that have made it to the market include the handmade trio of corkscrew-shaped cigars, the Partagás Culebra. In 2011, the Partagás humidor that was auctioned included a Series P No 3, which, given that Series P Numbers 1 and 2 already exist on the market, indicates that the P No 3 could be on its way before too long.
However, if you are a Partagás lover and were hoping to find the P No 3 at your cigar merchant this year, you are going to be disappointed. The big launch of the year looks like being a Cohiba Piramide – the Piramide Extra. At the list of lots for the 1994 auction, a Cohiba Piramide was among the cigars on offer that evening, the first time such a cigar appeared. It then returned in limited editions in 2001 and 2006, and it is now available as part of the official range. It may have taken 18 years since it was first seen at an auction, but I am sure it will be worth the wait.
Who knows, maybe they will even get around to making the fabled Grand Corona? I just hope that we are not kept hanging on for another 18 years.