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

Virtuozity - - The Huminidor -

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.

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