Phonecards have transcended their humble origins - now they're big international business as collectors' items, says Simon Richmond
Forget penny blacks; never mind Swatches. In 1995 the smart collector has moved into phonecards. If you thought the phonecard was just a piece of green plastic worth a couple of quid that helped you dodge broken payphones, think again. These days, a Nelson Mandela card (produced in Japan when President M was still in prison) changes hands for no less than pounds 1,000 and the record price paid - for a card produced for a Ronald Reagan convention in the Eighties - was pounds 26,000.

Last weekend saw the first British International Phonecard Exposition in London, where you could pick up Elvis for a few pounds, take home Pamela Anderson for a tenner and cling on to the Starship Enterprise for a mere pounds 12.

Organised by Brian Beglin and Keith Reeves, two dealers, this was the UK's first two-day event. "Over 60 dealers, representing over 20 countries," enthused Beglin, who reckons there are 10 million people worldwide involved in this hi-tech equivalent of philately.

Cardphones hit the UK in 1981, but it wasn't until Mercury launched its pay phone network in 1988 that picture phonecards took off. Today, there are around 3,000 UK designs and, according to Mark Jacobs, assistant editor of International Telephone Cards magazine, "It's almost impossible to find a boring one."

Virtually all cards now have pictures on them. The designs can be striking, but the hobby is hampered by a dodgy image. "At the first event I went to," remembers Louise, a phone company employee with a collection to sell, "I was knee-deep in anoraks and dandruff."

The value of a card will always be more if it is in mint condition (if it's never been used) but very rare cards are worth thousands even if they are cut into pieces.

Any self-respecting collector has a device to open the used-phonecard bins in phone-boxes. "I never go anywhere without it," said one female collector who buys her handbags to fit the makeshift key.

Stuart Christie, one of the authors of the Standard Catalogue of UK Telephone Cards, used to scour the phoneboxes between Edinburgh and Glasgow, from "tea time to 4 am". But the collection boom has slashed his nightly cull from 4,500 cards to around 50. "It's hardly worth doing it these days," admits Christie, who once flew to Australia to get a limited-edition card.

He is not the only one who has gone to extremes. "At the height of the craze in Paris, you stood a good chance of having any interesting card snatched," says Dr Steve Hiscocks, an ex-civil servant whose 15,000 types of card constitute Britain's largest private collection.

In the UK, if you hang around a major railway station long enough brandishing a desirable phonecard, you're likely to be approached by people looking to swap. But you could be letting a small fortune slip through your fingers.

One of the dullest UK cards, in Jacobs' opinion, is amongst the rarest. "It's a snip at pounds 7,000," he says of a BT card of which only 50 were made. "There are 16 known to be around and I have one of them."

Telephone companies themselves are waking up to the fact that phonecards can be a nice little earner. An auction last year organised by New Zealand Telecom raised NZ$1.5m, with only 50 cards being sold. "Collectors around the world shook when that happened," says Jacobs.

The bubble has since burst, according to Christie. Values are down in the UK because too many cards were issued last year. But with Mercury pulling out of the market in November, prices are likely to recover.

Mercury's decision to close down its phoneboxes comes as it is having one of its biggest successes with the Star Trek series. Space Marine, the company with the licence to make these cards, is now looking to the future with its Cable & Wireless "remote memory" Baywatch series of cards.

Also known as pre-paid calling cards, they have a unique number that users dial first, accessing a computer, which then deducts units from an account.

To aficionados, these cards are not quite pukka, since you don't insert them into the phone. But Space Marine's Marcus Bright doesn't mind. If Pamela's charms are snubbed, he's a got a licence to make a killing with a James Bond series, to be released along with the new 007 movie in November.