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A Cigar Puffed by Winston Churchill Is Set to Go on Auction

The British prime minister smoked the cigar while attending a movie premiere in 1953

Violet King, an usherette at the London Coliseum, pocketed the half-smoked cigar and safeguarded it for the rest of her life (Hansons Auctioneers)
smithsonian.com

On January 30, 1953, Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine attended a film premiere at the London Coliseum. According to a report published in the Daily Telegraph the following day, the audience “rose and cheered” as the pair entered the theater. The prime minister, in turn, “smiled and gave the victory sign.”

At some point in the evening, Churchill—a notorious cigar aficionado who was rarely seen without his trademark dose of tobacco—dropped a half-smoked cigar onto the theater floor. Violet King, an usherette tasked with overseeing the row in which the couple was seated, pocketed the discarded cigar and preserved it as a reminder of her brush with the revered British politician.

Come December, this 66-year-old memento is set to go on auction for the first time. Per a press release from Hansons Auctioneers, the cigar, expected to fetch between $6,000 and $7,000, will be sold alongside a yellowed newspaper clipping detailing the prime minister’s night at the theater and—perhaps most impressively—a letter from his personal secretary attesting to the item’s provenance.

According to Hansons, Churchill’s secretary, Jane Portal, sent the April 1953 missive in response to a note from King asking if she could tell her friends who had once smoked the cigar. The prime minister readily assented: As Portal wrote, “He has, of course, no objections to you telling your friends that the cigar you found is his and much appreciates your goodwill.”

King’s great-nephew, Julian Lewis, says his great-aunt viewed the keepsake as her “claim to fame.”

He adds, “She was very proud of the cigar. She liked to talk about it and show it to people.”

Winston Churchill cigar letter
Churchill's personal secretary wrote King a letter attesting to the cigar's provenance (Hansons Auctioneers)

Despite its age and low durability, the cigar is relatively well-preserved. Lewis notes that King stored her find, the letter and the newspaper clipping in heavyweight plastic provided by her niece, who owned a company that produced plastic for baby incubators.

Still, Jessica Leigh Hester writes for Atlas Obscura, “[The cigar’s] condition couldn’t be considered pristine—it is partially smoked, after all, and its little storage box is flecked with sloughed-off bits.”

The upcoming lot isn’t the first Churchill cigar to be sold at auction: In October 2017, a Cuban cigar smoked by the prime minister on a 1947 flight to Paris sold for $12,000, and in 2015, the chewed end of a cigar Churchill smoked during a 1962 hospital stay sold for £2,000. In 2014, however, an unsmoked Cuban cigar gifted to a carpenter who worked at the politician’s estate failed to sell at auction.

As Barbara Maranzani reports for Biography.com, Churchill’s smoking habit started during his teenage years, when his vice of choice was cigarettes rather than cigars. He developed a penchant for Cuban cigars after spending several months in the country and eventually smoked as many as 10 per day. Later in life, he built a specialized storage room capable of holding 3,000 to 4,000 cigars at his country home in Kent.

Churchill, for his part, believed cigars helped him weather the many challenges he faced throughout his political career. Writing in 1932, he reflected, “How can I tell that the soothing influence of tobacco upon my nervous system may not have enabled me to comport myself with calm and courtesy in some awkward personal encounter or negotiation, or carried me serenely through some critical hours of anxious waiting? How can I tell that my temper would have been as sweet or my companionship as agreeable if I had abjured from my youth the goddess Nicotine?”

Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons Auctioneers, says the soon-to-be auctioned cigar speaks to the centrality of cigars in the prime minister’s daily life. He notes, “[Churchill] puffed away at home, at work, and as we now know, even at the cinema.”

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