Nipper memorabilia going for a hit song

The image of Nipper, the HMV dog, in front of a gramophone is familiar to several generations, and the canine music fan is very collectable, as John Windsor discovers
Roll over Lassie and Rin Tin Tin - Nipper is the world's most famous dog and his memorabilia is modestly bankable. A 4in high silver figure of Nipper listening intently to His Master's Voice, the HMV trademark, is estimated pounds 600-pounds 800 at Christie's South Kensington's auction of mechanical music next Thursday.

In the same sale, a silver-plated cocktail shaker engraved with the "dog and gramophone" trademark is estimated pounds 200-pounds 300. Few collectors have seen a Nipper cocktail shaker before, so the price is expected to top the estimate.

Both items are highly collectable "Nipperie" because they were commissioned by HMV for its own dealers, long-serving employees, retiring executives and VIPs. Modern retail souvenirs command less respect. The silver Nipper figure is probably one of only a few dozen given to musicians that HMV recorded. The cocktail shaker could be a unique presentation piece.

You may not want to fill your living room with point-of-sale models of Nipper but, at street markets and boot sales, Nipperie that appears to have age is worth gambling a few pounds on. Nipper gramophone needle tins, retailed by the million, may be worth only pounds 3 to pounds 5 each, but company items such as an HMV Car Club badge have changed hands for pounds 500.

Be prepared to be thoroughly confused if you want to tell the difference between genuine and pirate Nipperie. The latest edition of the official guide to Nipperie, by Leonard Petts and Ruth Edge, an archivist at EMI, one of three companies worldwide that own rights to the trademark, lists 1,985 items - horn gramophones, lubricating oil, mugs, ash trays, table lamps, wristwatches, shop signs, posters, pencils - and nearly 100 Nipper figures, in pottery, plastic, glass, metal, wood, fabric, polystyrene and rubber. There is even an inflatable Nipper.

Among the most sought after Nipper figures are pre-war papier mache point-of-sale models ranging from 11ins to 36ins tall. They are well-modelled, have minimum colouring, tend to be cracked round the ears and have no base. Commercial reproductions generally have a base.

HMV's 11in tall papier mache model of Nipper is now worth not less than pounds 400 among serious collectors. A 19.5in papier mache model, estimated pounds 150 to pounds 250 at Christie's South Kensington last October, fetched pounds 402. A 14.5in painted model made of a composition substance, which carried the same estimate, went for an astonishing pounds 920. The collectors in the room obviously judged it to be genuine.

The factory-modified 17.5in model with an electrically-driven tail, probably unique, being put on the market by its owner, collector-dealer Howard Hope, could sell for over pounds 1,500, especially in the United States. There, collector-broker Herb Fayer, of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, recently paid an English dealer he had met on the Internet $200 (pounds 122) for an English figure of Nipper and sold it immediately for $600 (pounds 366).

He reports that when the RCA gramophone factory in Camden, New Jersey, was sold and stripped five years ago, thousands of dollars worth of Nipperie was unwittingly chucked out. He paid an employee $600 for a boxful of Nipper tramcar advertisements that he had salvaged. "The man took his $600 and ran, saying, `My God, there's a dumpster full of this stuff outside the factory'. But he was too late. It had gone". Fayer is still trying to trace the company fireman said to have made off with 20 Nipper fire alarm boxes, worth $3,000 each.

Even stuffed Nippers sold by the company for $7 in the Eighties are now changing hands for $50 to $100, he says. He found four 12in high flocked versions in a barn, paid $75 each for them and sold them for $500 each. Company-store twin packs of playing cards, once $1 over the counter, are now worth $100. It is not unusual for company Nipperie to appreciate five or tenfold in value as soon as stocks run out. "And if I offer collectors an item that they have never seen before," he says. "I can virtually name my own price."

If you think that is barking mad, consider the current American obsession with Beanie Babies, bean-filled animal dolls 4-6ins tall. The first, made less than three years ago, are selling for $3,000-$4,000. Their maker, the TY company of Chicago, is adept at the limited-edition collectables business. Editions of Beanie Babies are "retired" in order to artificially create rarity.

Fayer says: "Over the past year, the whole thing has gotten out of line. There's just too much money not needed for necessities. It's insane." By contrast, Nipperie collector Neil Maken says his firm Yesterday Once Again of Huntington Beach, California, has stopped making Nipper souvenirs under licence to Thomson Consumer Electronics, the French company that bought RCA-Victor's entertainment division, downsized, and shifted manufacture to Mexico.

Thomson scrapped the gramophone and gave Nipper a chum, a pup called Chipper. Maken laments that retail demand has since declined and that small production runs are no longer profitable. But some of his profits come from holding back batches of souvenirs for collectors - and demand from them is still high. He has just sold one of his Nipper crystal paperweights, price $30 10 years ago, for $132. And a pewter Nipper and Chipper moneyclip, still in production and priced $7, has just sold in an Internet auction for $80. "I was flabbergasted," he says.

None of this would make much sense to the original Nipper, a brown and white fox terrier born in Bristol in 1884 and so named because he nipped the backs of people's legs. Nipper's owner, the artist Francis Barraud, famously painted the dog listening, not to a horn gramophone, but to an Edison cylinder phonograph, hoping to sell the painting to the Edison Bell company.

But James Hough, founder of the company, and a Yorkshireman, said: "Dogs don't listen to phonographs." Barraud painted out the phonograph, painted in the brass horn, and sold the painting for pounds 50, plus pounds 50 for the copyright, to the Gramophone Company of Covent Garden, which adopted the name His Master's Voice.

There is a plaque to Nipper in Lloyds Bank on the site in Kingston-upon- Thames where he is thought to have been buried under a mulberry tree. An attempt at exhumation yielded only a few lamb chops. A real-life Nipper - his spitting image - owned by David and Mary Leigh of Warrington, Lancashire, officiates at about 20 EMI events a year, mostly the opening of new stores. He is about 11 years old and EMI will be appealing for a replacement later this year. In one form or another, Nipper seems set to last for ever.

"The Collectors' Guide to His Master's Voice Nipper Souvenirs" is pounds 20 plus pounds 5.50 p&p from EMI Archives, Central Research Laboratories, Dawley Road, Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1HH (0181-848 2000), a range of inexpensive new Nipper souvenirs is available from the same address; Howard Hope Phonographs and Gramophones, 21 Bridge Road, East Molesey, Surrey (0181- 398 7130); Herb Fayer (001-610 667 8400); Neil Maken (001-714 963 2474)