How did Havana’s Cigar Festival auctions begin?
NO-ONE 23 YEARS AGO COULD HAVE DREAMT THAT AN AUCTION IDEA COULD HAVE REACHED THE HEIGHTS IT HAS, WRITES SIMON CHASE
IT HAS BECOME A tradition that the very last event at the Festival del Habano, Cuba’s annual week-long celebration of cigars, is an auction of humidors to raise funds for the country’s Public Health System. La subasta, as it is known locally, takes place on the Friday night at a glittering gala dinner that sets the seal on five days spent visiting tobacco plantations in Vuelta Abajo, touring Havana’s cigar factories, attending seminars and enjoying a nightly programme of official and unofficial social gatherings.
There have been a total of 18 subastas since the festival was given the status of a Cuban national event in 1999. Onehundred-and-twenty-seven lots have been sold and the cumulative amount raised for the cause now exceeds $15 million, which means that each lot has reached an average price of some $118,000.
For reasons that still mystify me, I was picked to act as the auctioneer, or subastador, at the first one on 26 February, 1999, and I have conducted 16 out of the 18 since then. I stood down in 2000 because my debut the previous year had proved so daunting that I vowed never to conduct another auction. Having recanted, my second absence was this year, when a medical condition, thankfully not life-threatening, prevented me from travelling.
But where did the idea of charity cigar auctions come from? After all, the concept of charities, let alone the spectacle of auctions, are not things that have played any part in Cuban life for decades.
I am proud to report that it originated in England. It was the brainchild of the late Nicholas Freeman, the former chairman of Hunters & Frankau—my boss during the first 23 years I spent in the Havana trade.
The story started in November, 1992, when Cubatabaco launched the new Cohiba Siglo range at a ceremony in Havana. Many months were to pass before sufficient quantities of the cigars were available for export, so the European distributors vied for the privilege to host the first public launch event. In the end it came down to the UK and Switzerland, but Switzerland had to drop out when the then distributor was forced to resign because of US trade embargo pressures.
Nicholas pressed ahead with plans for a dinner to be held at London’s prestigious Claridge’s Hotel on 11 November, 1993, which he felt that should be a charity event. With help from the Cuban Ambassador in London at that time, H.E. Sra Maria Flores, an organisation was found called the Medical Aid for Cuba Appeal, which was busy raising funds to help address the problems on the island that had arisen during “the special period in a time of piece” caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The next decision was to hold an auction, but there had to be a star lot if it was to work. Nicholas knew that Maria Flores had the ear of Fidel Castro, so he asked her to see if she could persuade the President to supply a box of his cigars for the auction. Months and weeks went by with no news
enough, nobody at Habanos S.A. ever knew in advance whether the humidors would be signed or not. Sometimes we didn’t find out until the day of the auction. Nevertheless the day finally arrived when they were not signed.
It was in 2007, a few months after Fidel Castro had been taken seriously ill. Some people told me not to mention it, but I felt I had to. I used my opening remarks to wish the President a return to full health and reminded the guests that the public health system was in just as much need as ever. The takings dropped by around ten per cent, but we still took nearly $700,000.
From then onwards the auctions hit a rich seam. For six out of the following seven years, we topped $1 million, despite the missing signatures and the world’s financial crisis. (Perhaps I should explain that since 2005 the auction’s currency has been Euros, but as everyone in Havana wants to know the results in US dollars I have converted the figures).
It never fails to amaze me just how generous the cigar fraternity is when faced with a good cause.
A great many people in Cuba from the artists and craftsmen, who make the humidors, to the team at Habanos S.A. work long and hard to make the subasta a success. But none of us 23 years ago could have dreamt that Nicholas Freeman’s idea could have reached the heights it has.