Big rewards from the Big Top

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Gerry Cottle, 61, is a name synonymous with the circus, but before he established his legendary travelling circus in Britain in the 1970s he had already started building a vast collection of memorabilia, now worth more than £250,000.

After retiring in 2003, Gerry bought a tourist attraction in Devon called Wookey Hole Caves where he has just finished installing his collection of circus programmes, books and posters in a purpose-built studio.

“I really didn’t know how much my collection was worth until we had some of it valued for insurance purposes,” he says. “Anything to do with the circus has gone up in price in recent years and I think that’s because the art form has utterly died out in this country.

“My Bertram Mills posters used to be only worth £20 two or three years ago, but now they’re worth around £150 and I’ve got loads of them. Their artwork was 10 times better than most other circuses so they are highly sought after.”

It was watching Bertram Mills at London’s Olympia that fired Gerry’s passion for the circus. He was only eight but he held on to the ticket stub and started carefully storing the programmes to every circus he visited thereafter.

“Each year I still see every circus running in this country and I go to France, Spain, Italy and America,” he says. “40 per cent of my collection comes from what I have actually seen and 60 per cent has been built from swapping with other collectors. I think mine is probably the third or fourth best collection in the country.”

At the peak of his popularity, Gerry’s own Big Top seated 1,500 and required 150 trucks to travel around Britain. Very often other collectors would come to see him when he was in town offering swaps or items for sale, and occasionally he would hear about whole collections being sold off.

“It happens every few years and it’s usually widows trying to get rid of the ‘junk’ their husbands collected,” he says. “Most collectors are men – I don’t know one woman collector. When the husband dies the wife is usually relieved if she can see the back of it all.”

Last month he bought a 15-foot model circus with 2,000 die-cast figures of the audience, performers and animals. It cost him £5,000 to buy it from the widow of a man who had begun making it in 1947. Gerry plans to make it the centrepiece of his circus-themed restaurant at Wookey Hole, where he already has a wide range of posters on the walls.

The rest of his 2,000 posters, 4,000 programmes and 500 books are stored in his new studio. His most valuable item is a 1932 painting of the opening parade of a Bertram Mills Circus by Edward Sego, a painter known for his scenes of the Norfolk Broads. It used to hang in Bertram Mills’ boardroom and, when Bertram Mills sold up in 1965, Jimmy Chipperfield bought the painting at auction. After he died, his family sold it to Gerry in 1990. Bonham’s valued it last year at £100,000, alongside a watercolour in Gerry’s collection by Dame Laura Knight, worth £20,000.

“I don’t buy from eBay although I keep up to date with what’s on there through friends and that’s how I know the value of things,” he says. “There are a couple of young collectors who seem ambitious and pay lots of money, but I didn’t build my collection for money – it’s really a hobby.”

A quick look on eBay shows a thriving market with a Cottle’s Circus poster from the 1970s listed as sold in January for £35. But the majority of posters and programmes listed on the website fetch under £10, a similar price to those advertised in King Pole, the circus trade magazine.

When he has something to sell, Gerry prefers to use his network of contacts. In the past five years he has gone through his collection twice, rooting out multiple copies of posters and programmes.

Given the gradual rise in values, it is important to keep an eye out for fakes. Thanks to price crashes in high-resolution colour laser printers the market has seen an increase in copies of posters in particular, but Gerry is certain from the quality of paper that 98 per cent of his collection is genuine.

The oldest rare item he has is a book covering a 19th century Barnum & Bailey’s tour of Europe printed in 1890. It was given to Gerry 20 years ago as a present by his solicitor, also a circus fanatic, and is probably worth £250 for its detailed photographs from the period.

“I get circus performers visiting my collection and leafing through for ideas,” he says. “In the old days there were an incredible variety of acts showing a creativity we seem to have lost today. The circus used to be very important – I remember each Christmas in the 1970s there were two Christmas Day performances on TV – Billy Smart on BBC1, and Chipperfields on ITV.

“There are still 20 circuses in Paris, but in London you have none. This is the only country in the world that doesn’t show the Monte Carlo circus on terrestrial TV. It’s sad, but at least my collection is going up in value and one day I might sell it, but I can’t be bothered at the moment.”

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