Personal Finance: Collect To Invest: Pick up the pieces cheaply

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Sniff, sniff. If the wooden jigsaw puzzle in the junk shop smells a bit musty or damp, it's good news. It has probably been preserved in an attic or cellar, with all its pieces intact. And if it is a big, 1,000- piece puzzle, it is more likely to be intact than smaller ones - big ones were so daunting that they were consigned to the attic sooner rather than later. John Windsor picks up the pieces

Now is the time to scour your attic for 20th century wooden jigsaw puzzles. Earlier, hand-sawn jigsaws have long been recognised as collectable antiques. But with the publication on 9 December of Tom Tyler's comprehensive guide, British Jigsaws of the Twentieth Century, the jigsaws that father and grandfather used to make will become more sought after.

They have hitherto been a relatively unrecognised and undervalued collectable. The auction market for them is narrow and prices are stable - for the same reason, odd though it may seem, that prices for horse-drawn carriages are stable. Only horse riders buy carriages and only puzzle-doers buy puzzles.

Love it or loathe it, there is no avoiding trying to slot those little "necks" into the right holes. Otherwise, how will you know whether your charity shop find is intact?

A puzzle worth pounds 200 or more at auction - such as the rare 200-piece Great Western Railway's "G.W. Locos in the Making" made by Chad Valley between 1936 and 1939 - can drop in value by a half or two thirds if one or more pieces is missing. Without its box it suffers a similar drop in value.

Locos in the Making, showing a party of schoolchildren apparently about to be crushed by a tank engine on an overhead hoist at GWR's Swindon workshop, is typical of the images that sell best.

Transport is the thing: express trains, ocean liners, aeroplanes - the sort of Cor-whoosh! juggernauts that set schoolboys' pulses racing before the space age.

It is not surprising that the biggest auction markets for jigsaw puzzles are transport linked. Puzzles realise their full "cross-over" value if sold at Ian Wright's Sheffield Railwayana Auctions, at the Romsey Auction Rooms, which sells model railways and vehicles, or in one of Bonhams' Chelsea toy sales.

A complete GWR "Locomotives in the Making" fetched an unusually hefty pounds 480 at a sale by Sheffield Railwayana Auctions in Hendon in May. You would be lucky to pick one up for under pounds 225, its going rate.

But complete, good-condition puzzles in the same GWR series regularly sell at auction for only pounds 30-pounds 50. GWR may be the must-have of jigsaw puzzle collecting, but most are relatively common and most established puzzle collectors already own all but the rarest of the 40 or so in the series. There seems to be a glut of GWR/Chad Valley's The Romans at Caerleon and Brazenose College Oxford, at around pounds 30 each.

The astute collector will explore new territory. Why, for example, are Pears puzzles, even the quintessentially Victorian "Bubbles" picture, still changing hands at only pounds 15-pounds 30?

The collector David Cooper cherishes his deliciously decadent Salome Dances Before Herod, a 600-piece puzzle published by Holtzapffel in about 1905. It sells for pounds 50-pounds 80. Its pieces are all of different shapes and it is a swine to make up.

Apart from that, very little is known about Holtzapffel, a German engineering company that settled in London and began making quality jigsaws solely to demonstrate its super new jigsaw. Author Tom Tyler has a trade list of theirs, but the publisher of their prints is not known.

Will more collectors specialise in Holtzapffel, do some research - and push up prices? As a start, Mr Tyler's book brings to light some splendid Holtzapffels, including Salome and a Queen Cleopatra with edges that follow her outline. Many manufacturers' archives have been chucked into builders' skips. Tuck's were destroyed in the blitz.

Mr Cooper, a builder, has a sideline - he is the country's most renowned maker of replica jigsaw pieces. Lend him the pieces surrounding the vacant spot and, for a fiver, he will cut a precise replica and his wife, Val, will paint it using acrylic colours.

He uses balsa-backed plywood that is easily sanded down to the level of the surrounding pieces and shows up clearly and honestly on the back. "I restore the picture, not the puzzle", he says. The restoration of a lost piece or two will not restore more than two-thirds of the value of a puzzle at the most. But at least it will look perfect.

It is Mr Cooper who sniffs puzzles. The smell of newly sawn plywood warned him against buying one that a dealer insisted was antique.

At Romsey Auction Rooms, jigsaw puzzle specialist Brian Lee has an antidote to the lost-piece problem - a number of knowledgeable vendors, many of them women, who pay as little as 20p for jigsaw puzzles in junk and charity shops and boot sales, assemble them, wrap them in cling film for display at auction - then watch them fetch pounds 20 or pounds 100 or pounds 200.

Mr Lee would not offer a puzzle with an expensive title unless it was made up. Who would gamble even a quarter of its complete value in the hope of finding it intact? Many collectors, he reports, simply will not buy incomplete puzzles. You can buy loose puzzles at his sales, including run-of-the-mill cardboard ones, for around pounds 20 for a lot of half a dozen or more.

Cautionary tale for the impatient: three conscientious staff at Bonhams, leading London auctioneers in jigsaw puzzles, spent a total of 45 hours assembling five boxed GWR puzzles - including the sought-after Locos in the Making - before offering them in last month's sale.

Locos in the Making, complete but with three pieces broken, sold for pounds 138, three sold for pounds 39, pounds 46 and pounds 63 and the fifth, The Fishguard Army, a fishing scene, damaged, failed to sell.

Tom Tyler is founder of The Benevolent Confraternity of Dissectologists (01473-723458). His `British Jigsaw Puzzles of the Twentieth Century' is published by Richard Dennis, The Old Chapel, Shepton Beauchamp, Somerset TA19 0LE (01460-240044), pounds 22, p&p pounds 1, credit card callers post-free. David Cooper (01227 742222). Romsey Auction Rooms (01794-513331). Sheffield Railwayana Auctions (Ian Wright 0114-274 5085). Bonhams Chelsea (0171- 393 3906).