I've always wondered if the touted investment potential of the Star Trek plate had any bearing on reality. I think I have the answer now
You've got to admire the earth signs. Collecting wouldn't be the same without their keep-the-receipt thought processes. Air signs lose things as soon as look at them. Waters ruthlessly jettison without thought for nostalgia. Fires have abundant sentimentality, but they accumulate rather than collect. The last time I looked under my sofa, the accumulation of dust bunnies was showing signs of developing its own ecosystem.

Not so the earths. If there is one thing a Taurus needs, it's storage space. Give a Virgo a dry room and he'll fill it with the packaging from his hi-fi. Capricorns delight in making less organised individuals squirm by telling them about their colour-coded filing systems. Only an earth sign is capable, even as a child, of keeping the boxes that toys come in.

The earthly fruits of earthly pursuits were on show at Phillips, the auctioneers, on Tuesday when they held a sale of toy soldiers. One of my Virgo rellies had a batch of assorted Zulus in it. In the upstairs sale room in Bayswater, entire regiments were piled on tables, in glass- fronted cabinets, on the floor, in Pizza Hut delivery boxes.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the punters were male and on the senior side of 40. Half wore suits; the others anoraks. The three other women I spotted amidst the throng, though, seemed to possess Asperger's Syndrome levels of knowledge.

They were bossy, too. They dragged young men from cabinet to cabinet, firing off questions they couldn't answer. "Why," said a wild-haired lady in a beret, before a display of khaki-clad crawling mannikins, guns pointed at towel-wrapped Arabs, "haven't they got fixed bayonets? I thought everything from that period had fixed bayonets?" "Um," he replied. The other two, grey-haired and a little military themselves, peered at a parade of Grenadier guards. "The catalogue says they're touched up, but I can't see where." "Tchuh. There. Third row, three from the left. His right arm's about two shades out." "Oh, yes."

There's something compelling about a toy soldier: the lead ones, at least. I never got to play with the ones at home, which came out, Narnia-like, from the attic for convoluted war games, once a summer. Watching the battle of Waterloo re-enacted in the celandine patch, matchsticks flying from tiny cannons, is one of those things that stays in your mind. The plastic ones we were allowed to poke each other in the eye with, never had the same romance.

But then, who needs romance when you're collecting? What you need is a cheque book and a poker face. By the time the sale got under way, most of the suits had evaporated: evidently they had been owners gloating over the value of their own toys. As is generally the way of the world, what suits remained had colonised the forward rows. Every other seat was filled: tiers of glassy stares which slipped slyly to the notes scrawled in the next-door catalogue. I joined a line of flat-caps at the back, sneaked my own little peeks at the man to my left.

He had put his own estimates beside Phillips's, and bid scrupulously up to and no further than two-thirds of these. Scarcely a sound rose above the auctioneer's cries of "all gone at pounds 170"; people weren't going as far as winking, but the little dabs of hand in air were scarcely perceptible to the untrained eye. Or even, for that matter, to the trained one. After one lot was knocked down, a punter objected. "Excuse me," he said, "I was bidding there." "Oh," replied the auctioneer, "Sorry. Didn't see that. Shout or wave or something next time."

The surprises came thick and fast. Those metal chappies are old hat, it seems, in the world of models. I watched aghast as other people's childhood fantasies barely reached estimates. Lots of empty boxes, meanwhile, went for pounds 140 to pounds 200 - double expected prices. Now, those were obviously the product of an earth sign with an air moon: store the packaging and lose the original contents. Gratifyingly, those models produced specifically for the collectors' market were snailing it. I've always wondered if the touted investment potential of the Star Trek plate had any bearing on reality. I think I have the answer now.

And then came the plastics. You probably had some yourself as a child: farm animals, knights, cowboys and indians. These set off a bidding frenzy. Five tepees, estimated at pounds 70-pounds 100, went for pounds 550, a set of Timpo Romans for the same. Some British bowmen fetched pounds 300, while knights on horses galloped off for the princely sum of pounds 620. Little murmurs ran thro-ugh the crowd. I waggled my eyebrows at a man with pince-nez and he waggled his back. And then he spent pounds 380 on an assortment of 18-century cannon and their fodder.

After that, things turned sad. A set of scenes by a deceased amateur modeller, Douglas Parsons, came up. They had been my favourites during the viewing, each face a delight: medieval, scurvy-wracked peasants, an elephant who was obviously loving trampling the enemy. The room emptied. Those who remained bid a lackadaisical pounds 40 here, pounds 50 there. They perked up enough to go up to pounds 550 for a 20-scene history of the Royal Navy, but otherwise the effort of raising their hands seemed too much. Just think: you have the choice of a work of art or Hong Kong's finest, and you fight for the lump of placcy. Then again, the art didn't have its original boxes.