Memories are made of this

“When I took my first sale in 1968 the highest price paid was £40 for a Stevengraph. Now you very rarely see one,” says Simon Chorley, the Cotswolds auctioneer. Stevengraphs, pictures made from silk, have gone the way of pot lids, Goss china, Baxter prints, fairings and other 19th-century decorative baubles that were fiercely fought over by collectors during the great revival of interest in Victoriana in the 1960s and 1970s.

Few industries are quite so subject to fashion as antiques. What is a “must have” collectable for one generation is excess baggage for another. Today Chorley’s Stevengraph might form part of a mixed lot that would make £20. Pot lids, the transfer-printed tops of jars that contained shrimp or toothpaste, have suffered an even greater fall from grace. “When I joined Sotheby’s in the early 1970s there was a department devoted to pot lids holding regular auctions,” says Jon Baddeley, head of collectables at Bonhams. Today a very rare pot lid, decorated with a view of Washington crossing the Delaware, might still top £2,000 but common lids, such as the view of Pegwell Bay, are valued at less than £15, as against £45 30 years ago. If pot lids do make the saleroom they are likely to be bundled into groups of five, estimated to fetch up to £60.

Chorley is organising the auction, on December 11, of the stock of a local antique dealer, John Vosper, who died in September. In the attic of Vosper’s Minchinhampton premises he discovered a mountain of surplus objects that time had rejected. Oil lamps, which might once have been priced at £100, are now estimated at £20, while commemorative china, produced to celebrate royal weddings and coronations, will be offered at five for £20 when once a single mug might have made that sum.

But not all the paraphernalia of that era is neglected. Postcards, for example, are achieving record prices as collectors become nostalgic for more leisurely days. Edwardian albums can make £500 at auction, with dealers well aware that a particular card, perhaps of a train crash or a Zeppelin, might be worth £50.

The vogue for costume drama on television has been reflected at auction, with prices for 19th-century dresses doubling to around £400, with a crinoline thrown in. Bonhams at Knowle has some good examples at its December 8 auction, with one rare Victorian cotton dress estimated at £4,000. Also enjoying a revival are military medals. The Waterloo medal can sell for £4,000, as against £800 a few years ago, while groups of first world war medals, especially if they contain rarities such as the Mons medal, also attract competitive bidding. And stamps, perhaps the most traditional of collecting fields, have steadily increased their appeal, helped by an influx of new American buyers. This year Spink sold a Great Britain ten shilling stamp for £18,000, as against the £80 it made in 1969.

While some collecting fields go completely out of fashion others experience extraordinary rushes of blood before settling down to more reasonable levels. The teddy bear market lost touch with reality in the late 1990s, when rare Steiff bears were selling for almost £100,000; now the best examples make nearer £20,000. Golf memorabilia were catapulted beyond the wallets of traditional collectors when new golf courses such as Valderrama in Spain proved keen to acquire an archive. The competition for the rarest items pushed a collection of clubs used by Open champions above £600,000 in the 1990s; today six figures are rarely seen. Swatch watches had their brief day in the sun, too, when rare examples could make as much as £20,000; now the collecting passion has waned.

In the past collectors were often obsessives, driven to acquire every regiment of lead soldiers, every variation of a pewter mug, no matter how cluttered their homes. Current collectors are likely to invest in one example of the best to set off their more minimalist living spaces.

What has not changed is the link between collectors and memories. The driving force in most markets is the prosperous middle-aged man or woman attempting to acquire the dreams of their youth, be it a motorcycle such as the Reg Dearden Black Lightning of 1949, recently sold by Bonhams for a record £221,500, or George Harrison’s guitar, which made $500,000, or a signed David Beckham shirt worn in a major match (beware of fakes) valued at around £2,000. As a sign of today’s celebrity culture, autographs, first sought by the Victorians, are enjoying a revival, with Spink launching regular auctions last June.

Toys are an obvious outlet for nostalgia, and once again collectors’ tastes have changed to reflect the years. Dinky and Corgi cars of the 1960s have replaced old tinplate toys in popularity; plastic soldiers have their supporters, while earlier sets of lead soldiers have fallen back in value. Wealthy collectors can invest in the real cars of their early fantasies, with postwar Jaguars and Lotuses having the edge over prewar Bentleys.

Collectables are likely to survive a recession in better shape than works of art. They are much cheaper and they are bought by enthusiasts, who will go that extra mile to buy the one piece in perfect condition or the rarity that completes a collection. It is therefore ironic that collectors must look to regional salerooms, the internet and flourishing collectors’ clubs to fuel their passions: the leading auction houses have closed down their collectables departments in recent years, reckoning that the tiny profit achieved on each sold lot was hardly worth the hassle.

Today Sotheby’s rarely sells anything below £2,000 in value, while Bloomsbury no longer holds auctions of chess sets, games and fountain pens. Even Christie’s South Kensington, established in 1975 largely to service collectors, has culled its collecting departments, axing trains and sport, dolls and teddy bears. However, on December 4 it holds its first Pop Culture auction in an attempt to attract new young collectors. The current craze for favourite movies is reflected in the £10,000 estimate for a Batwing aircraft, a model used in the 1989 Batman movie, while the trousers worn by James Dean in Giant carry similar expectations. For young pop fans a first edition of Birth of a Cult, featuring photographs of Pete Doherty, is estimated at around £400, and a poster of The Clash at £400. Collectors might change but the thrill of the chase continues.

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