Personal Finance: The rogue on the mantel

Americans loved him once. Now he's the plaything of interior decorators. Add Toby to your home and you will never be short of a talking point

Toby jugs are probably Britain's most unsexy traditional collectable. Toby is old, overweight, gouty, drinks too much beer and looks garrulous - a 200-year-old version of Alf Garnett.

Young British collectors are not taking to Tobies - or other traditional favourites of English ceramics, such as cow creamers or salt-glazed stoneware - as keenly as their fathers and grandfathers did. They would rather invest in Moorcroft, Beswick or Wade pottery, or a daring piece of contemporary art.

As a result Tobies are down in price. At auction you can pick up a standard- model quart-size Toby jug with minor damage for only pounds 300-pounds 400, compared to pounds 600-pounds 800 10 years ago. Undamaged ones have kept their value better (as have all mint-condition collectables), but have dropped in value in real terms. You might get one for pounds 1,000-pounds 1,200, compared to pounds 800-pounds 1,200 a decade ago.

That means that unless you love Tobies - could they have a fetishistic appeal? - investing in them must be in the hope that the Americans will rediscover them. They love old English pottery and have shown themselves to be quicker than we are at buying into newly researched fields such as transfer-printed blue and white crockery.

Ten years ago, when the art and antiques market was in an upward price spiral, a New York investment company paid a still-unsurpassed pounds 20,900 at Phillips, the London auctioneers, for an extremely rare Staffordshire Toby jug in the form of a midshipman fiddler - one of about 15 variants of the standard design with tricorn hat. The fiddler would be lucky to raise half that today.

To make money out of such a bold investment you need to sell on to one of the dying breed of very rich collectors who are prepared to pay over the odds to fill gaps in their collections. There are still a few about. It was an American who paid pounds 3,680 at Sotheby's last month - a big price in today's market - for a rare Toby jug of Martha Gunn, the celebrated Brighton "bathing woman" (she hired out horse-drawn sea-bathing machines and bathed the nobility, including, it was once thought, the infant Prince Regent). The piece had strong colours, only minor damage and its detachable cover was intact.

It is furniture dealers and interior decorators, not connoisseur collectors, who are keeping the market for Tobies alive, especially for damaged, run- of-the-mill specimens. Buyers of oak breakfast-room furniture can often be persuaded to add a chipped Toby to their purchases, to give the room atmosphere - and a talking point.

Well, who was Toby? He was a rotund old Yorkshireman, Henry Elwes, famous for drinking 2,000 gallons of strong stingo beer from his silver tankard, while eating nothing - the sort of feat that the Guinness Book of Records refuses to publish. He was nicknamed Toby Fillpot, and after his death in 1761 the London publisher of popular prints, Carrington Bowles, issued a mezzotint portrait of him. It became a best-seller - as did the Burslem Potter Ralph Wood's "Toby" jugs based on the portrait.

Other potters copied Wood's standard Tobies with foaming tankard, clay pipe resting against the chair and tricorn hat, so convenient as a spout. It is Wood's finely hand-modelled versions, with their translucent brown, green and ochre glazes that are most in demand today.

One of his modellers was the Frenchman John Voyez, a former jeweller who modelled Coade stone and who collaborated in the design of George III's state coach, still used by the Queen. He probably modelled the more vigorous looking Tobies - including Martha Gunn. There is a story that in 1769 Voyez was given 12 strokes of the cat in public and three months imprisonment after Josiah Wedgwood, his employer, laid criminal charges against him. Tobies do give you plenty to talk about.

Wood's son, also Ralph, adopted a less expensive production technique in about 1790, high-firing colours beneath a transparent glaze. Felix Pratt copied it. "Pratt ware" Tobies, in opaque blue, ochre, green and black, manufactured until about 1820, are less valuable than "Wood type". After 1820 Tobies were cheaply mass-produced.

In their day, Wood's Tobies were used by the carousing middle class. Georgian taverns - posher establishments than inns and alehouses - used to bring them out for functions, when they would be filled with strong ale. It was an expensive tipple; one Edinburgh brewer charged 10 guineas a gallon for it. The cup-shaped crown of Toby's hat was intended to protect the beer from smuts from candles and hearths. It is perhaps not surprising, given their bibulous history, that so few of the jugs have survived intact. There are not many Toby hats without chips to the rim.

Unless you intend stockpiling slightly damaged standard Tobies at under pounds 300 each, in the hope that, in time, others will grow to love him, go for the rarer variants. Besides Martha Gunn and the fiddler, there is the sailor, Admiral Lord Howe, the squire, the Welshman, the night watchman, the thin man, the drunken parson, the convict, the publican, the old English gentleman, the snuff-taker, the bargeman and the Hearty Good Fellow.

Although these rarities, as a whole, have failed to maintain their value over the past 10 years, they still provoke the occasional saleroom duel. Two years ago at the last big sale of Tobies in London - the Bute collection - three Wood-type squires of about 1785 made pounds 6,900, pounds 2,300 and pounds 1,380. They had been modestly estimated, according to condition (they had not a pipe between them), at pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000, pounds 800-pounds 1,200 and pounds 300-pounds 500. The biggest bid was resolute, over the top, and egged on the rest.

How much should you pay for a thin-man Toby these days? Back in 1987 one made around 1775 fetched a whopping pounds 6,050 at Christie's South Kensington. Encouraged, the auctioneers estimated a similar one at pounds 4,000-pounds 5,000 in a sale two years later. It failed to sell. Re-offered in 1993, it made pounds 2,860. In the Bute sale there were four examples, two of 1785 and two of 1790, all knocked about a bit. This time prices bunched between pounds 1,495 and pounds 2,300, apparently depending on condition.

Sotheby's auctioneers appear to have a fixed opinion on how to estimate Martha Gunns in good condition. A Pratt type, although lacking a cover, is estimated pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500 in Sotheby's 4 November sale - the same estimate as in last month's sale at Sotheby's when the price realised for a Wood type was pounds 3,680.

There are 16 cheaply estimated Tobies in Sotheby's Billingshurst 16 September sale (10.30am). A standard model and a black-faced "collier", both Wood types with an excellent provenance, having once been part of one of the finest Toby collections, that of Lord Mackintosh of Halifax, now dispersed, are pounds 300-pounds 500 and pounds 250-pounds 350. Four heavily restored Tobies, including a squire, are pounds 200-pounds 300 the lot. Furniture dealers and interior decorators will try to carry them off cheaply.

The only lot in the sale guaranteed to rise in value in the short term is the Winston Churchill Toby of 1945 - with minor chips, estimated at pounds 700-pounds 900. It is not just a Toby; it is political memorabilia, the latest hot ticket in Sotheby's salerooms.

Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-293 5000), Sotheby's Summers Place, Billingshurst, West Sussex (01403-833500). Christie's, 8 King Street, London SW1 (0171-839 9060). Christie's South Kensington, 85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 (0171-581 7611). Phillips, 101 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-629 6602).

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