Although pipe smoking is not as popular as it once was, collecting pipes remains an active hobby, with meerschaum pipes among the most sought-after. Meerschaum has several nicknames including White Goddess and Venus of the Sea. It is a German word that means “sea foam.” Meerschaum is actually sepiolite, a hydrous magnesium silicate that appears white, pale gray, or cream colored. The bowls range from smooth and simple designs to elaborate heads with flowing beards, ships, battle scenes, fantastical creatures, and more.
The History of Meerschaum Pipes
Meerschaum is essentially a member of the soapstone family, typically mined in Turkey at depths of 50 to 450 feet. It is soft and porous, and its history in pipe carving is debated, according to Benjamin Rapaport in his "A Complete Guide to Collecting Antique Pipes, 1979." Rapaport states there is an accepted account that a Hungarian nobleman in 1723 was given a lump of meerschaum. Returning home, he gave the lump to a carver, who turned it into a pipe. Rapaport states that another tale claims that a French artist, Louis Pierre Puget, carved the first meerschaum in 1652. The pipes became popular with wealthy smokers in Europe in the mid- to late-1700s. In the mid-1800s, factories employed hundreds of carvers. Shortly before WWI briar began to dominate the pipe market.
Used is More Valuable
Meerschaum pipes that have been smoked are considered more valuable than those that have never been used because they are more beautiful. A new pipe is white or a pale cream. When a meerschaum pipe is smoked, the tobacco oils seep into the bowl, turning it golden brown to dark cherry and enhancing the carving.
Finding the Value
As with many antiques, a meerschaum pipe is worth what someone will pay for it. They can be found on Internet auction sites from $50 to $1,500. It is easier to date pieces that are signed and hallmarked; these tend to be worth more. Appraisers at antique stores that specialize in smoking paraphernalia can estimate the value of pipes. Several books on pipe collecting, available in libraries, bookstores, and through the Internet, also estimate values. In general, the more elaborate the carving, the better condition and color, the more a pipe can bring. The "Guinness Book of World Records" lists the most valuable meerschaum pipe at $50,000, owned by Cano Ozgener.
Genuine meerschaum pipes are worth far more than their imitations. Appraisers can determine if a pipe has been carved from a block of meerschaum or if it has been made from "meerschaum dust" that was mixed with various emulsifiers and pressed into a form; the dust was left behind from carved blocks of meerschaum. The pressed pipes do not pick up color when smoked like carved meerschaum does.
Meerschaum on Display
Large, elaborate meerschaum pipes are considered works of art and are on display in museums, including the Smithsonian, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Phoenix Masonic Museum, and the Meerschaum Museum in Eskeshir, Turkey. The pipes are also displayed at tobacconist conventions held around the world and at large antique shows.
Jean Rabe has worked in journalism since 1979, serving as a reporter, bureau chief and magazine editor. She has written 27 novels, including "The Finest Creation" and "The Finest Challenge," while her true-crime book, "When the Husband is the Suspect," was written with F. Lee Bailey. Rabe has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from Northern Illinois University.