A rare, authentic collection of 282 Vietnam era Zippo lighters went on the auction block June 21st at Cowan’s Auctions
in Cincinnati. The collection belongs to artist Bradford Edwards, whose collection was showcased in the book Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers’ Engravings and Stories 1965-1973
(Sherry Buchanan, University of Chicago Press, 2010). Some of you may remember the collection, which received media attention by the New York Times
, NPR, and others. The lighter collection had a starting price of $30,000 to $50,000 and was included in the book. Considering the years of search Mr. Bradford spent in Vietnam sourcing and assembling the collection, the starting price seems realistic.
Most Americans remember the Zippo, with its cool flip-top lid and unmistakable clicking sound, as the device used in the 1950s and 1960s by gentlemen to light a woman’s cigarette. Don Draper or James Bond would do it best. Two quick moves — flip, click. Smooth as silk.
The mechanics of a Zippo lighter has remained basically unchanged since it was first introduced in 1933. Just this month, Zippo celebrated the production of its 500 millionth Zippo lighter with an engraved and numbered edition of 10,000 lighters at $45 a pop.
It’s the stainless steel case that users like to modify and personalize. In World War II, the Zippo was the soldier’s friend, providing dependability for fire whether lighting a cigarette or explosives.
During the Vietnam War, the Zippo served the same utilitarian purpose, but was often personalized for soldiers by local street vendors in villages. GI’s could choose from any number of preset graphics and words, or they could design or write their own:
35 KILLS IF YOU ARE RECOVERING MY BODY FUCK YOU
STOLEN FROM A GOOK 5-11-67
A common quote that resonated with soldiers and found on many Zippos spoke to complete disillusionment:
WE THE UNWILLING LED BY THE UNQUALIFIED DOING THE UNNECESSARY FOR THE UNGRATEFUL
I LOVE THE FUCKING ARMY AND THE ARMY LOVES FUCKING ME
And then, there was the sentimental, loving message:
I LOVE YOU MARY
TO MOM FROM A LONELY PARATROOPER
The engraved samples in Edward’s collection speak to patriotism, to hopelessness, to anger, and often to romantic longing for the girl back home. In a war where most soldiers served not by choice but by draft, these engraved lighters have a patina and voice that echoes still. According to Edwards, this is the reason he collected the lighters in the first place.
If you are interested in the final auction price for this collection, check the hammer price at Cowan’s here