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So, although selling percentages of 93 per cent by lot and 97 by value are statistics that many saleroom departments would give their eye teeth for these days, they didn’t come as that much of a surprise to Bonhams last month when they offered a 183-lot gathering at their Knightsbridge (17.5/10% buyer’s premium) rooms on January 27.

This is a market that tends to be dominated by the British buyers (and in the case of cigarette cards by British and American products).

Prices for the more standard fare, which is well documented in catalogues and price guides, tend not to stray that far from estimates.

The real competition comes for the scarce material from the smaller firms with short and limited production runs.

Just such a set provided the top price on this occasion. Lusby’s were one of those short-lived tobacco companies and the 25 cards depicting Scenes from Circus Life issued in 1905 are the only set they produced.

It is sufficiently rare for Bonhams consultant Brian Asquith to have never come across a set before. His £900-1200 guideline on the cards, which were all in good to very good condition, was more than doubled when the hammer fell at £2600.

But if this was a case of rarity generating fierce enthusiasm, there was an even keener edge to things a couple of lots later when the auctioneers offered 33 cards of c.1900 decorated with phrases and advertisements by the Japanese firm of Murai. They were the last element of a larger consignment from a Japanese vendor the rest of whose property featured in the auctioneers’ November sale.

These were so rare they were not even listed in cigarette card collectors’ catalogues, so Bonhams weren’t even sure the 33 cards constituted a complete set although the auctioneers said they were in immaculate condition. All of this made estimation difficult, a case of “how long is a piece of string” in Mr Asquith’s opinion, so he opted for caution with an estimate of £150-200.

In the event, any number of enthusiasts were keen to add these to their collection, with the result that the bidding reached no less than £1550.

These two lots were the main contributors to the final £49,000 total. Other attractions included an early golfing entry from another small company, 31 out of a set of 51 cards from Marsuma’s Famous Golfers and their Strokes, issued in 1914 that fetched £700 and seven from a set of 20 of Clarke’s Tobacco Leaf Girls, with their distinctive leaf-shaped cards which made £880 despite some minor condition problems (a small tear to the stem of one and some slight marking where the cards had been stuck down).