Dunhill osprey and woodpecker Aviary lighter, £6500 at Chiswick Auctions.

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It’s not difficult to see how these uber-collectable lighters got their name. Not only do they resemble miniature fish tanks, 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.

However, it is the so-called ‘non-aquatic aquariums’ depicting subjects other than fish that bring the highest prices.

For these rarer or bespoke examples, the makers – Ben Shillingford at Dunhill and Allan and Margaret Bennett working from their home on the south coast – would use reference books and their own artistic talents to produce a design in pencil and watercolour and then carve it into the plastic using dentistry tools.

The lighters were made from 1949-59. Winston Churchill was one of many wealthy and notable owners and collectors.


Dunhill RMS Queen Elizabeth lighter, £4200 at Chiswick Auctions.

Rare designs included an ‘aviary’ lighter with an intaglio carved woodpecker to one side and an osprey to the other (estimate £5000-8000) and a bespoke lighter decorated with a view of the Cunard ocean liner RMS Queen Elizabeth (£4000-6000).

Both sold at the sale on August 23 within hopes at £6500 and £4200 respectively.

The auction record for an Alfred Dunhill ‘aquarium’ lighter had been set at Chiswick Auctions in December when a version depicting a pair of water birds to one side and a snowy heron to the other raced away to bring £13,000 (see ATG No 2574).