How a €3,000-plus lucky lighter proves it really does pay to shop duty free

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News reaches The Moodie Blog of an historic duty free item bought for a knockdown price but about to be sold for a sky-high one.

The item is not a rare single malt whisky, nor a vintage Hermès nor Louis Vuitton bag.

It is a humble lighter, bought at Shannon Airport – the birthplace of airport duty free in 1947 – by none other than Che Guevara, the legendary Argentine Marxist revolutionary, author and guerrilla leader who also played a key role in the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959).

The Irish Independent reports that Che purchased the lighter when his Prague to Havana flight was diverted to Shannon with engine trouble in 1965.

For years afterwards, Che – who had distant Irish heritage, his father’s full name being Ernesto Guevara Lynch – dubbed the duty free bargain his ‘lucky lighter’.

That luck ran out with his unsuccessful rebellion campaign in the Congo in 1966. At which point, the story goes, he presented it to Fidel Castro’s mistress, the wonderfully named Natty Revuelta Clews, telling her it was no longer so lucky.

Well, its soon to be new owner will likely disagree. Irish auctioneer Gormleys is putting the lighter under the hammer – hopefully not literally – with a guide price of €2,300. Already it has attracted a bid of €2,900 and that’s likely to go much higher.

It really does pay to shop duty free. Bought for a few shillings in 1965, this souvenir lighter will now set you back by at least €3,000 {Photo: Gormleys Art Auctions)

I have no idea how much it cost Che Guevara back in 1965 but judging by a 1966 Shannon Free Airport Ireland liquor price list in my possession, it must have been a lot cheaper than any modern-day equivalent.

In 1966, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label cost 31 shillings and sixpence or US$4.50, a bargain compared to the US domestic price of US$11.25. Jameson was listed at 24 shillings and sixpence or just US$3.50 (compared with US$8.75 in the American local market).

Today a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label will set you back around €43.20 (US$46), up +922% over 57 years and Jameson (depending on the size and expression) from about €21.00 (US$22.30), a hike of some +530%. Which might make that €2,900 for the lighter look like a bargain indeed.

Incidentally, I can confirm that neither Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman & CEO Colm McLoughlin nor his wife Breeda (then Breeda Fox) sold the lucky lighter to the revolutionary leader. Breeda worked at Shannon Duty Free from 1966 and Colm, who recently marked his 54th year in duty free, began there on 1 June 1969.

Mind you, Colm has lit up plenty of smokes – and lives – since. And he didn’t need a lucky lighter. ✈

Breeda Mcloughlin (nee Fox) served many passengers during her time at Shannon Free Airport, including a certain American President who may have popped in for some peanuts but ended up buying something by the looks of it much more expensive. However, Che Guevara’s visit just pre-dated her {Picture: The World Rovers published by The Moodie Davitt Report 2007}.
And Colm McLoughlin, as this letter of appointment testifies, would not join the business until 1 June 1969