Alfred Dunhill ‘Aviary’ series lighter – £13,000 at Chiswick Auctions.

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The super-rare lighter depicting a pair of wading birds to one side and an egret to the other raced away from its estimate to bring £13,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).

It’s not difficult to see how Dunhill ‘fish tank’ lighters got their name. Not only do these chunky 1950 and 60s perspex and electroplated lighters resemble miniature aquariums, but most were decorated with aquatic subjects. The thick layer of Lucite, a material developed by the American air force during the Second World War, provides an illusion of movement. Each was designed and made by Dunhill factory artist Ben Shillingford or by Margaret and Allan Bennett, who worked from a workshop in their south coast home.

It is the so-called ‘non-aquatic aquariums’ depicting subjects other than fish that bring the highest prices. The Bennetts often made these working from reference books, drawing up designs of birds, horses and shipping liners in pencil and watercolour before approval by Dunhill.


A view of the other side of the Alfred Dunhill lighter that made £13,000 at Chiswick Auctions.

Carving out the intaglio designs using a dentist’s drill and painting the decoration by hand ensured each piece was unique.

This example was in particularly good condition, with the gilt plating to the mechanism present.

Back in 2016 these rarities reached record levels. At Bonhams in April 2016 a lighter with a design of a salmon on one side and a fisherman on the other took £8000.

In May that year another decorated with a swan and a goose in flight made £7400 at Lawrences of Crewkerne, while in October £7100 was paid on eBay for a lighter depicting the RMS Queen Mary.

The price bid for this ‘Aviary’ series lighter at Chiswick’s Design and Modern sale on December 13 breaks new ground. The estimate was £2000-3000.

The value of an unusual subject matter was made clear with the appearance of another similar lighter as the following lot. This example, also 3in high x 4in wide x 2in deep (8 x 10 x 5cm), was worked with a more familiar scene of coy carp and other fish swimming in a rocky waterbed. It made a more typical £1600 (estimate £500-800).