'An ill-starred object symbolising mortal sin' is how designer Ettore Sottsass describes an ashtray. None the less collectors can still be found for smoking paraphernalia - as long as it is sold as something else. John Windsor reports; Damien Hirst paid for Sarah Staton's papier mache cigarette butt with his own sketch of a dog end
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IT'S ONE of the guiding principles of collecting that value increases with rarity. Smoking paraphernalia, by that rule of thumb, must surely be about to go stratospheric. Tobacco is frowned upon and smokers puff furtively as their numbers decline. Everyone must be clamouring for these smoke-grimed, nicotine-stained souvenirs of an unhealthier past, and the big auction houses must be in on the act.

Well, no, actually. Just as there is critical mass in a collecting trend, there is its opposite. When a category of objects is deemed so disgusting, so politically incorrect, so counter to the Zeitgeist, prices plummet and the market dries up completely. Private smoking collections have been banished to backroom dens: the last big one - the contents of the House of Pipes Museum in Bramber, Sussex - was auctioned by Phillips five years ago. It was almost certainly the last auction dedicated to smoking.

Where can anyone turn these days to sell off the now-despised family collection? Fortun-ately, most smoking ephemera - with the exception of the majority of pipes - has a "cross-over" value. That is, its appeal crosses over into quite different collecting markets, and these are usually more lucrative ones.

For example, you can hide the smokiness of your Thirties Wills's Capstan point-of-sale showcard of an ocean liner - and get a better price - by offering it to collectors of shipping ephemera, advertising art, packaging or Thirties nostalgia, especially Art Deco. It's a better bet than trying to winkle out a collector of smoking ephemera who's capable of paying you a decent price.

One such showcard - a three dimensional ship complete with wooden masts and cotton rigging - is in Phillips collectors' sale which takes place in Bath on 20 November. It is among 190 showcards collected by a freelance advertisement painter, Leslie Harries, of which 100 are smoking-related. Auctioneer John Stapeley has estimated it at pounds 100-pounds 150 and reckons the highest bid will come from a shipping collector. Smoking advertisements that bear the names of known artists - such as Tom Browne, best known for his Edwardian Weary Willie and Tired Tim comic strip - cross over into yet another lucrative field: comic art.

Cigarette-card collecting has declined since wartime paper shortage stopped publication in 1940. But if you have a set of 50 famous golfers published by Cope's cigarettes in 1904, you can be sure it will fetch pounds 2,500-pounds 3,500 at one of Phillips' golfing auctions. Golf is today's most valuable cross- over. It is also worth seeking out sets of famous cricketers and footballers now that sports memorabilia sales are drawing big money at Christie's South Kensington and Glasgow. But we are unlikely to see prices rival the $451,000 (pounds 250,000) paid for the unique American cigarette card of 1910 featuring the baseball player Homus Wagner. A non-smoker, he forced Piedmont cigarettes to withdraw the card, sending its rarity value soaring. A baseball fanatic bought it.

In the period up to the Twenties, smoking was a predominantly male habit, so smoking accessories of the day cross over into the macho gift market: cigarette lighters, silver cigarette cases and match holders, ceramic tobacco jars, smoking jackets and caps. Their value has been sustained by collectors of silver, ceramics and costume, not by collectors of smoking. Even the Lighter Club of Great Britain has nothing to do with cigarettes in its title: after all, you can use a petrol lighter to light a bonfire, not just cigarettes - and lighter prices are rising: your Deco Parker could be worth pounds 60.

There are smoking accessories masquerading as ethnographica (tribal art), showbiz memorabilia and erotica. A North American Indian bead "glengarry" smoking cap, made for Victorian tourists, fetched pounds 84 at Christie's South Kensington's tribal art sale last week. John Lennon's leather-clad tobacco jar, which used to contain his marijuana, fetched pounds 5,400 at a Christie's South Kensington pop memorabilia sale last month, more than 10 times the estimate, after the mischievous International Herald Tribune had suggested: "You might be able to get a bit of a high from buying it". (The brown powder in it turned out to be tea). At Phillips tribal art sale on 3 July, a wood pipe in the form of a naked female, and probably North American Indian in origin, sold for pounds 27,600; perhaps because of its appeal to two markets, ethnographic and erotic.

Saucy collectors of silver and erotica have pushed up the price of gilt- lined silver cigarette cases with double-opening lids concealing enamelled pictures of undraped women. At Christie's South Kensington, plain enamelled silver cigarette cases dating from 1900 to the Twenties can be bought for pounds 70-pounds 100, those with pastoral scenes pounds 200-pounds 300, with animals pounds 300- pounds 400, and the erotic (without animals) up to pounds 1,000 and beyond. The Swiss and Germans made them. In London, Arabs, whose taste in art favours veiled sexuality, are among the keenest buyers.

Erotic cigarette cases are also the toys of the Indian new-rich. At Sotheby's first auction in India, held in New Delhi three years ago, prices for a collection of 32 erotic Austrian silver and enamel cigarette cases of about 1900 provoked some eager bidding: one showing a nude wood nymph fetched pounds 1,532 one showing a nude woman on a frilly bedspread, pounds 1,097. Another showing two fully-kitted male footballers tackling one another failed to sell.

The same sale had a macabre and tasteless relic from after-dinner smoking during the Raj: a "compendium" trophy of about 1900 in the form of a tiger skull with eye and nose sockets fitted with silver wells for cigarettes and matches, a spirit lighter in the middle of the cranium, and an ashtray in the jaws. It sold for pounds 869, around mid-estimate.

Terracotta black-boy tobacco jars, made in Vienna, Germany and France between 1860 and 1875, are an unexpectedly thriving tobacco-related market. Americans and British black people go for them, says David Martin-Taylor, a London dealer in furniture and eccentric objects, because the boys' expressions are charming and lifelike. They sell for pounds 350-pounds 1,200. Those by the Viennese artist Goldschneider fetch pounds 800-pounds 2,000.

Some smoking accessories cross over so far that you might never suspect they had any connection with tobacco (although that does not guarantee they will sell). Those thumb-sized brass figures from Dickens with circular bases, for example, are actually pipe tampers. Nick Marchant, a Bath antique dealer, had a collection of dozens he could not sell, even at pounds 10 each, probably because he told people what they were. The dealer he eventually jobbed them out to is also finding them hard to shift.

Mr Marchant said: "It's hard to sell anything related to tobacco. It's bad news. People used to say, 'Oh, if it had been jewellery, I'd have bought it'. The only people who buy are the Japanese. But I've no wish to see another pipe tamper ever again."

Among surviving major collectors of tobacco accessories, the Alfred Dunhill Museum in London finds it particularly difficult to keep track of all the cross-overs. The museum succeeded in detecting in a Sotheby's English literature and history sale the Dunhill meerschaum pipe smoked by Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes in the film version of Hound of the Baskervilles, and bought it for pounds 3,058, more than double top estimate. It also paid pounds 5,280 for a rare combined watch and cigarette lighter, designed by Dunhill in 1926, spotted lurking in a Sotheby's clock sale last month. But it missed the Dunhill lighter inscribed by Marlene Dietrich to Sam Winston, who adapted the song "Falling in Love Again" into English. It sold for pounds 2,000 at a Sotheby's film memorabilia sale.

Dunhill's archivist, Howard Smith, is remarkably phlegmatic about the decline of smoking: "By the end of the century," he says, "people will be asking 'What was smoking?' That means the value of smoking items will be going up. Now's the time to start collecting: especially lighters - they are very portable and have fabulous designs. The Italians are major players in the lighters market. And have you noticed how many smoking accessories, such as ashtrays, are made out of interesting materials like Bakelite? People collect that." Alfred Dunhill, he says, had started out by designing men's accessories - watches, pens, motoring goggles - and the company could switch out of smoking accessories as easily as it had switched in.

You might think artists would shun images to do with smoking. Not at all. At the Serpentine Gallery last month, in the same show that featured Tilda Swinton asleep in a glass case, aesthetes were invited to ponder one of Winston Churchill's cigar butts. Earlier this year, Sarah Staton, inventor of a travelling "Supastore" selling artists' editions of household objects, was charging pounds 50 each for her papier mache cigarette packets and pounds 10-pounds 30 for papier mache cigarette butts, along with papier mache coins and telephone cards, explaining that they represented capitalist detritus still retaining value as currency. Leading contemporary art gallerists Jay Jopling and Anthony Reynolds bought them at her introductory price of a fiver each.

Damien Hirst, the dead animals' artist, forgot to pay Staton for his papier mache cigarette butt, but, confronted by her at the Groucho Club, hastily drew a cigarette butt on a used envelope as payment. He must have an affection for cigarette butts: this year, the Idler magazine was offering competition prizes of 25 butts numbered and signed by him.

The most in-your-face smoky art project is the nine ashtray designs commissioned by the Swedish tobacco company, the House of Blend, which managed to inveigle world-class designers to participate. They include the Italian furniture designer Ettore Sottsass, who muses: "The ashtray has become the ill-starred object that has come to symbolise mortal sin." His chunky design blatantly draws attention to itself: it is a cylinder of Venini glass stuck in a block of marble. By contrast, the London designer Jasper Morrison acknowledges the furtiveness of modern smoking by hiding butts in an anonymous cavity of white china that suggests a variety of uses: a flower trough, perhaps. The ashtrays go on sale next year.

And pipes themselves? If you must collect them, go for ethnographica or meerschaum, especially erotically carved meerschaum, which is likely to retain its curiosity value. After all, who would want mucky old briars? The French have a saying: "There are two things a man never lends: his wife and his pipe" - a reminder that a much-loved pipe can seem a pretty nasty object to anyone other than its user. The auctioneers have tried to counter this natural revulsion by inventing a name for used pipes: "estate" pipes, as in "deceased's estate". When you twig what it means, it makes pipes that have endured the suck and dribble of a man now dead seem even nastier.

! Dealers: Phillips Bath (01225 310609); Nick Marchant (0585 273083); David Martin-Taylor (0171-731 4135); The Lighter Club of Great Britain (0181-665 9578): Cigarette Packet Collectors Club: H. Humphreys, 15 Dullington Road, Newmarket CB8 9JT. Museums: Alfred Dunhill Museum, by appointment only (0171-499 9566); Museum of London (0171-600 3699); York Castle (01904 653611); Preston Hall, Stockton-on-Tees (01642 781184).