Fortune tied up in smokes

Family hopes to get $72,000 for collection

Staff WriterDecember 6, 2010 

  • Interested in talking with Harry Kraemer about his collection? E-mail inquiries to matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com will be forwarded to Kraemer's family.

Sure, he used to indulge in the habit, but it wasn't the nicotine that turned Harry Kraemer into a cigarette collector.

The pretty packaging took care of that.

As a child growing up in Scranton, Pa., Kraemer, now 83, frequented the neighborhood pharmacy, where intricately designed cigarette packs filled the shelves.

"It got me so excited," he said of his first purchases as a teenager. "They were so colorful, you know what I mean?"

Now Kraemer is ready to sell his collection of 7,178 cigarette packs, if he can find a buyer who will take the whole thing off his hands. He started collecting in earnest in the 1950s when cigarettes cost 17 cents a pack. Today, his son Steve reasons that at an average of $10 per pack, the collection could be worth $72,000.

The great unknown is whether anyone with that kind of money will part with it for a 20th-century history of the cigarette.

Kraemer and his family figure someone in North Carolina, the state tobacco built, might be interested. Kraemer, who lives in a Minnesota retirement home, is working with his son Steve to help him sell the collection, a process that included a phone call to The News & Observer to inquire about advertising.

In case you were wondering, there's a reason that Kraemer is even around to consider the auction block: He quit the Pall Malls decades ago.

Price range: $6 to $400

Kraemer, who spent his career in banking and finance, purchased thousands of packs on his own and traded with other collectors to amass his stockpile. Some of the oldest pieces are from the 1930s, and include packs of Chesterfield, Snooty and Happy Hit cigarettes. He owns a circa-1913 pack of Reynos.

Each of the packs in his collection is different. When a manufacturer changed the packaging, Kraemer would buy one of everything to complete the set. So a new wrapper might necessitate buying kings, menthols, 100s, etc.

The value of an unopened pack of cigarettes can vary widely, said Clarke Stephens, who helped found the Piedmont Tobacco Memorabilia and Collector's Club. Run-of-the-mill packs, even ones decades old, often go for less than the $10 average Steve Kraemer would like.

"It all depends on the condition," Stephens said, noting that the market for old packs of cigarettes is just like any other that deals with antiques. And because cigarette packs were meant to be thrown away, "as far as I'm concerned, a pack that'sover 25 years old is an antique."

Stephens, who collects sealed packs of Camel cigarettes, said his most valuable pack is a prototype manufactured prior to 1913, when Camels hit the market. He estimates its value at more than $400.

A pack of Homerun cigarettes, similar to a pack that Kraemer owns, was listed on eBay this week for $149.99. But most packs aren't worth nearly that much. A common pack from the early 1990s might bring $6; common brands from the 1960s might go for $8 or $10, said Stephens, who lives in Walkertown and worked 36 years, seven months for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Few buyers are around

Harry Kraemer has long been a member of the Cigarette Pack Collectors Association, which started in the Triangle in 1976. Richard Elliott, who runs the group, thinks the Kraemers will have difficulty finding a buyer for the entire collection. The organization has about 200 members who concentrate on finding rare packs, not buying thousands at once.

Elliott, who lives in Kennebunk, Maine, said a collection of similar size to Kraemer's sold about a decade ago for $30,000. The purchaser bought the collection for a museum. Another museum purchaser bought a 10,000-piece collection in 2003 or so for about $12,000.

Elliott suggested that Kraemer sell the most valuable pieces in online auctions. Stephens advised a similar method, by breaking up the packs into lots by manufacturer.

But Kraemer wants to get rid of it all. "I spent a lot of money on cigarettes," he said.

Now he is determined to make some.

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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