Rip open the wrapping in search of a valuable variant, and you could well destroy the value of the perfectly packaged contents. John Windsor explains the collector's catch-22 xxxxxxx
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Hidden treasure or a pig in a poke? The contents of a mysterious cardboard box, whose twine is sealed with lead, have not been seen for 83 years. Those who last clapped eyes on whatever is inside were First World War production line workers. Timothy Millett, of the London coin and medal dealers, Baldwin's, who will be exhibiting the box for sale next month at the Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair, has no intention of opening it. He is asking pounds 4,250 for it.

Ever since collectors became obsessed with packaging, not only have collectables in their original packs acquired a premium mint-and-boxed value, but modern collectables, whose plastic packaging cannot be opened without spoiling them, have acquired a tantalising mystery all of their own. Rip the wrap in search of a rare and valuable variant and you forfeit its mint-and- boxed value. It is the collectors' catch-22.

At its most basic, the mint-and-boxed business, though a bit crazy, like all collecting, sounds logical enough. Without its box, the collectable is incomplete, therefore not worth as much. A fine-condition mint-and-boxed 1960 Dinky Toy of a van with Heinz tomato ketchup advertisement can fetch pounds 1,500 at auction - but without its box, only pounds 300 to pounds 400.

You can take a Dinky van out of its box and put it back as often as you like. But what of plas-tic science-fiction toys glued or stapled inside Cellophane-fronted cards; shrink-wrapped Swatch watches; or Mont Blanc fountain pens in opaque boxes with paper seals that circulate among collectors in their intact, virgin condition? How can you be sure of knowing what is inside?

Consider the plight of the plastic Star Trek character Geordi La Forge, a crew member of the New Generation Enterprise who has a sight defect. He has to wear a plastic optical visor. Original models were fitted with a removable visor, but Trekkies complained that they were always getting lost, so they were replaced with a fixed version - which is more plentiful and less valuable. You can usually tell which is which because the card- packs containing the two varieties have a slightly different picture. However - and here is the catch - a small number of old models with removable visors were carelessly put into the new packs. The old model/new pack variant is a potentially valuable one, notionally worth at least pounds 100. But you cannot tell whether the visor is removable or not without ripping open the pack. So, in mint-and-boxed condition, that variant simply does not exist. Which means that your pounds 100 will always remain a virtual reality. Prices for mint-and-boxed Geordi La Forges - with or without removable visor, who can tell? - are sticking at pounds 40 (old) and pounds 30 (new).

Swatches are notorious collectables because their inventor, the wily Nicolas Hayek, purposefully issues rare variants and distributes them haphazardly, just to keep the collectors' market on its toes. A battery- driven Swatch, preserved in its original never-to-be-opened plastic shrink- wrap, must be the most ludicrous example of a mint-and-boxed collectable. The batteries run down after two or three years. Collectors cannot replace them without sacrificing the Swatch's mint-and-boxed value. So they don't bother. Who cares? Swatches are objets not timepieces.

Hayek's 1991 "One More Time" limited edition of three Swatches, designed by the eccentric Alfred Hofkunst - known as the "Vegetable Set" because the watch faces are in the form of a cucumber, a red pepper and bacon- and-egg - were issued in vacuum shrink-wrap (at first on market vegetable stalls as a promotional stunt). London Swatch dealer Joseph Falcone says: "To replace the battery, you have to cut the vacuum plastic - and there goes your value. True collectors want the vacuum to be intact. I've had collectors say 'I won't touch that', because the vacuum has been lost, leaving a Swatch dangling in a plastic bag."

Perfect vacuum-intact vegetable sets sell for pounds 850 to pounds 1,000, those with no vacuum pounds 450 to pounds 500, and those that - perish the thought - have been cut open to replace the battery, pounds 300 to pounds 450.

Most ludicrous, did I say? Hayek surpassed himself when, in 1991 and 1994, he issued editions of Swatches in liquid-filled metal cans, the watch, of course, invisible. The first was named the Bomb, because you could hear the Swatch ticking. (Until the batteries ran out, that is.) Mr Falcone accidentally dropped one and it ex- ploded in a shower of spray, revealing a Swatch in sorry condition with straps bent back to fit the can. Opened cans are, naturally, worthless.

Collectors cannot tell which of three possible variants the cans contain. The tiny dot-stickers in different colours on the cans could be identity clues, but are more likely to be one of Mr Hayek's little jokes. The bar- code stickers, collectors say, do identify the contents. But dealers strip them off because they want to charge more than the retail price that they reveal. The humorous Mr Hayek is fully aware of this. The cans, worth up to pounds 250 two years ago, now sell for pounds 150 to pounds 200. But that is unlikely to wipe the smile off his face.

Limited-edition Mont Blanc pens, which circulate unopened among collectors, seemed likely to join the catch-22 packaging league when, last year, the company attempted to withdraw its Alexandre Dumas pen, pencil and ballpoint set because it had mistakenly inscribed them with the signature not of the author of The Three Musketeers, but of his namesake son, the opera composer. Are collectors tempted to break the paper seal to find out whether they are in possesion of the error? In fact, they don't have to, as the seal bears a facsimile of the signature inside. But Bonhams is still uncertain which version will be most valuable. It has estimated an error set at pounds 1,200 to pounds 1,500 in its July sale of fountain pens.

As for old collectables wrapped up in paper and cardboard, what about that First World War box. Christie's South Kensington's toy specialist, Hugo Marsh, sold a boxed 1948 Hornby clockwork train set, wrapped in brown paper secured with gummed tape, for pounds 600. The usual mint-and-boxed price would have been pounds 150 to pounds 200. It was part of an old toy shop's stock that was known from inspection to be in pristine condition. The buyer steamed open the gummed tape.

Would Mr Marsh be tempted to undo the 83-year-old First World War cardboard box? "No," he says. "The dealer who is offering it for sale is right in refusing to do that. My instinct would be to pass on that responsibility to the buyer."

So what would be revealed if the lead seal were broken? Well, like the toy shop, the attic in Ireland where the box was found yielded an identical box whose remaining contents were two small embossed brass boxes of comforts sent abroad to First World War soldiers by Princess Mary's Christmas Fund. Each contains a pencil in a brass bullet case (could anyone devise a more tasteless present for soldiers being slaughtered at the front?), and a Christmas greetings card from the Queen wishing them a "victorious New Year". The catch - and there's always a catch with invisible, packaged collectables - is that the bullet pencil is a variant for non-smokers only. Appar-ently good news: non-smokers were a minority in those days, so non-smokers' boxes should be scarce and valuable. But who can tell whether the unopened box contains the same as its twin?

Queen Mary's tins for smokers, according to the Imperial War Museum, contained an ounce of pipe tobacco, 20 cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, a Christmas card and a signed photograph of Princess Mary. Non-smokers' contained a packet of acid tablets, a khaki writing case with stationery - and a bullet pencil.

Mr Millett has rattled the package, known to contain 72 tins in 12 cardboard cartons, but cannot make out whether or not it contains 4lb of pipe tobacco. In any case, he thinks the tobacco would have been added at the front.

The two boxes from the twin package are in remarkably bright condition, having been hidden away for all these years. The rest were given as presents, having been discovered 50 years ago by the Anglo-Irish military family that has lived in the house for 200 years.

Such tins, usually empty, sell for between pounds 20 and pounds 60, depending on condition. Mr Millett values the two stray ones, with contents, at pounds 100 each. Which makes his pounds 4,250 sound like a bargain, whether smokers' or non-smokers'. "I'd be quite happy for somebody to buy the package, open it, and re-market the boxes for double", he says, "but I'm still not going to open it myself".

The saddest thing is that the package survives at all. The army officers in the Irish family were charged to deliver it to soldiers at the Somme. But, as the war progressed, most of the soldiers who were meant to receive bullet pencils had been shot. "Considering what happened to those poor devils", says Mr Millett, "it's a pretty gruesome package."

Just as sad is the Crimean War package that was discovered in the same attic by a grand-mother of the family 21 years ago. It contained individually packaged parcels that, being a tidy sort, she burned. At least she divulged what they contained: fruit cake.

! Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair, 5 to 15 June (0171 370 8188). Baldwin's (0171 930 6879). Joseph Falcone, the Art of Swatch (0171-589 1200).