Canny makers of fancy goods have understood the value of collectability since Victorian times. Then, fancy-priced novelty biscuit tins and colourful printed sheets of birds and animals, made to paste into scrapbooks, were issued in multiples, tempting collectors to complete the set.
It was the greatest living collector of thimbles, Edwin Holmes, who recently coined the derogatory term "instant thimbles" for those mass-produced sets of porcelain fripperies misleadingly advertised in Sunday newspaper supplements as "heirlooms to cherish". The mail-order price of each thimble, brand new, is up to pounds 10. Their real value, revealed whenever collections of them are auctioned, is a pitiful pounds 1 for 10.
But the biggest market in instant collectables nowadays is cards - plastic telephone cards; glossy trading cards (based on film, TV and cartoon characters and bought from newsagents mainly by the 14-23 age group); and the latest addition, cards bearing works by an international collective of artists who have twigged that cards grab people's attention.
Like instant thimbles, the commercially produced cards - phonecards and trading cards, which originated as fantasy card games for children - sell new at bumped-up prices. They satisfy the basic requirements of mass-market collectables: they are small, easily stored, easily displayed and issued in sets, as well as being highly durable.
But card-makers are smarter than thimble-makers. Instead of limiting editions by setting a closing date for orders (really just a feeble justification for using the term "limited edition"), card-makers strictly limit editions by stated numbers, deliberately creating scarcity and boosting resale value among collectors.
And their designs are more streetwise. Private publishers of telephone cards (obliged by law to use British Telecom as supplier) have developed an instinct for alluring commemoratives and are becoming as responsive as the brasher trading cards to the latest comic-book, film and television crazes. Even BT itself is attempting to get with it: its next card issue will feature Pink Floyd.
Telephone cards are today's fastest-growing collectable, with more than four million collectors worldwide. Japan's 1.3m telephone-card collectors now outnumber its stamp collectors. The Germans, with a million collectors, are Europe's keenest. France has 800,000 and Britain 75,000, of whom two- thirds are reckoned to be children.
Even in Britain, prices for limited-edition telephone cards are rising steadily. A set of two privately printed BT cards of Garfield, the strip- cartoon cat, is worth pounds 150 if unused. When the 20-unit cards were issued only three years ago, mainly to collectors, each of the 482 sets (a few of the 500 made were scrunched in manufacture) carried the premium price of pounds 11. They would buy pounds 2 worth of telephone time. Most of the balance is profit for the publisher. So it is hardly surprising that the original anorak-toting collector-publishers have been joined by promoters of commercial products, charities, sports teams, schools and regiments, all keen to coin their own currency. Promoters now account for about 20 new cards a month through BT and its manufacturer. BT charges pounds 2.16 each for a minimum permitted order of 1,000 five-unit promotional cards.
Britain's most valuable privately published telephone card was a money- spinner for members of the Messerschmitt Owners' Club. The club published 500 five-unit BT cards (50p worth of telephone time) at pounds 11 each. Club members bought 300, collectors the rest. Three years later, they are worth pounds 150 each unused.
One of Britain's biggest telephone-card dealers, Kevin Baker of Spalding, Lincolnshire, published 1,000 sets of three five-unit cards for a Romanian relief charity. They cost him pounds 7 a set to produce and sold for pounds 15, of which pounds 5 went to the charity. These cards are now worth pounds 35-pounds 40 a set.
Big companies are less interested in limited editions than in mass advertising. Kellogg's issued three million 20-unit advertising cards two years ago. So far, they are not worth much more than their pounds 2 face value. But 5,000 Coca-Cola advertising cards in a 1993 Icelandic edition, micro-chipped for exclusive use on trawlers, are worth pounds 30 a card to collectors.
A card with a captive clientele is BT's own 20-unit "For use in HM prisons only". Outside the nick, they sell for a mere 25p in used condition. Unused ones would be worth pounds 8-pounds 10. BT's current 20-unit Beano SOS cards, to enable kids to call home, cost pounds 2 each new.
America now has its first set of erotic telephone cards, with antique Oriental paintings of copulation. Non-erotic BT took an airbrush to its 1993 artwork for Sloggi bras: the pounds 10 card is worth pounds 15 today.
Kevin Baker believes: "Because of the rapid development of the hobby, there isn't a single card in existence that is not going to go up in value. As more card phones are installed, production runs are bound to increase, but there will always be a finite number of early editions as small as 500."
Foreign professional telephone-card promoters exploit collectors more ruthlessly than their British counterparts. In Germany, where demand from collectors is so strong and there are 90 promotional issues a month, a Popeye card is selling brand new for pounds 25, compared with the typical retail price of pounds 7.50 for a British card. A German publisher was behind BT's 10,000 five-unit Bill Clinton victory cards in 1992: they sold for pounds 10 new, but at pounds 10-pounds 12 today have hardly appreciated in value.
Still, to non-collectors, pounds 10 must sound a bit steep for a mass-produced bit of plastic still in its wrapper. By comparison, old-fashioned cigarette cards, despite having had at least 55 years in which to appreciate in value, are dirt cheap. Common sets of 50 cards from the Thirties can still be bought from dealers for about pounds 8 a set. They are just not flashy enough for today's youngsters.
World-record prices for cards, both ancient and modern, have little to do with the smartness of publishers and everything to do with the age- old combination of rarity pursued by wealth. One of BT's trio of first- ever commemoratives, a 900-strong edition of 100-units for the 1987 Muirfield golf championship, is now worth pounds 2,500 unused. A unique used and battered Taiwanese definitive (standard-issue) telephone card of 1983 was recently bought by a Japanese collector for pounds 28,000. But the most expensive card of any sort, bought for an astonishing $451,000 (pounds 250,000) at Sotheby's New York four years ago, is an American card for Piedmont cigarettes of 1910, showing the baseball ace Honus Wagner. A non-smoker, he forced Piedmont to withdraw the card, but this one survives.
Sales of trading cards are rising by 20 per cent a month, according to Barrie Roness, the 28-year-old founder of Palan Distribution, one of the biggest trading-card importers. These, the flashiest of the card collectables, have great street-appeal. "Think of any major film that's been popular," says Mr Roness, "and there will be a trading card for it." His container shipments arrive within 24 hours of a new issue's release in the United States. Watch your corner shop for his imports of Disney Lion King trading cards towards Christmas.
He describes trading cards as an "instant lottery" because publishers insert rare, valuable "premium" cards in as few as one in several hundred packs. To find one, collectors have to keep buying new packs over the counter until they strike lucky - or buy second-hand at street value from another collector. One premium card, in Britain's most popular trading- card series, the American Star Trek Voyager, has a street value of pounds 50. It has a holographic design that gives the illusion of motion (hence "motion card") and is issued in only one in 720 packs of eight cards costing pounds 1.50 a pack.
Wholesale prices of trading cards can fluctuate from week to week, according to demand and supply. Wholesalers do bulk deals between themselves. Mr Roness reported that wholesale Star Wars prices had risen 25 per cent in three weeks.
American publishers of trading cards have started issuing their own telephone cards as premium trading cards. One in every 36 nine-card packs of Baywatch trading cards includes a telephone card (or, more precisely, a pre-paid international "remote memory" card that deducts the cost of calls from the user's account). Baywatch telephone cards are worth at least pounds 10 to collectors, the price of 10 packs of Baywatch cards. Cards autographed by Baywatch stars are issued in one in 432 packs. These are worth pounds 25- pounds 40 each. Ultra-rare Batman cards the size of CDs change hands for as much as pounds 160.
When I met Mr Roness he was awaiting 720,000 pounds 1 packs of Judge Dredd: 80 tons in five sea containers. Not cards, these, but circular cardboard counters or "spugs" (copyrighted as "pogs" in the United States), which are used to play a scatter-and-cover game not unlike the game once played with cigarette cards. There are collectable premium spugs, too.
It was the first product Mr Roness had designed himself and it had taken 11 different American suppliers, manufacturers and printers to complete it. He is now on to his next idea: catalogues for theatrical and model agencies with each actor or model's photograph and CV on a card.
It is all to do with choosing an alluring medium for the message. If cards draw attention, then, besides making a profit by selling them, why not use them for advertising - or even for art?
More than 1,000 artists, designers, architects, film makers and photographers are already painting, gouging and sticking strange objects on cards in a mildly seditious annual game that has art buffs scurrying between art- card dispensers located in different parts of a city, lured by the chance of investing in miniature originals that could turn out to be the work of high-priced artists.
It is a novel way of disseminating art that bypasses commercial galleries and museums, forcing would-be connoisseurs to buy art without prompting from the art establishment - or even knowing the artists' names.
At this summer's Venice Biennale, under the banner of the London-based agit-prop group FAT (Fashion, Architecture, Taste), more than 1,000 artists each supplied 100 pairs of cards bearing their own quirky, often provocative work. Each artist's first hundred cards - which were left unsigned - were mixed together and put in dispensers at 15 locations throughout the city, ranging from elegant museums and libraries to newspaper stands and bars, where they could be taken free. (The take-away habit is evidently strongest at fast-food joints, where the contents of the dispenser were quickly scattered over the floor).
Art-lovers taking a fancy to a free card could take it to the project's office, where they were quoted a price (mostly under pounds 1) for the pair card - still without being told the artist's name. Albums were on sale, in which the budding bias-free, culture-free connoisseur and collector could exercise curatorial skills by sticking in their purchases of pairs of cards. Not unlike the Victorians and their scrapbooks.
The project, called Outpost, had first run at the Edinburgh Festivals of 1993 and 1994, when bearers of one unsigned dispenser card, marked "Donor", were required to donate a pint of blood to earn the pair card, marked "Donee". The participation game was dreamt up by Helen Chadwick, best known for her Serpentine Gallery exhibit of a plaster cast taken from her piddle-hole in the snow. Whether or not Chadwick's card will acquire premium value among collectors depends on what she gets up to during the rest of her artistic career.
In Venice, the artist "Yin" offered pairs of National Lottery Instants cards, the first in virgin condition, the second signed and scratched to reveal no win. A wry warning against investing in instant collectables?
! The Standard Catalogue of UK Telephone Cards, pounds 24 post free, from: Kevin Baker, Pelennor Promotions, PO Box 12, Spalding, Lincolnshire PE11 4HX (01775 821290, fax 01775 821 858); or The Telephone Card Catalogue Com-pany, PO Box 1628, Largs, Ayrshire KA30 8SU. BT Phone Card Direct: 0345 697721.Reuse content