Collectors answer call of the card

Those old telephone cards you find lying around in phone boxes could be worth thousands. Or very little.
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Philatelists collect postage stamps; scripophilists collect busted bonds issued by defunct Russian governments, Chinese railways and Chilean mines. The new craze for collecting telephone cards has not yet agreed itself a name, but it is already big business, with an estimated 4 million collectors throughout the civilised world and a strong commercial edge.

The vast majority of cards produced in the UK are definitive issues, ie the bread-and-butter cards issued by the telephone companies for regular use. British Telecommunications has churned out its plain green cards by the million in various denominations. Since 1981 it has issued 100 million cards.

Mercury also issued its own sets, which are highly regarded by collectors for their designs and quality. Mercury cardphones will be phased out before the end of the year, and no more new issues are being prepared, but at least a dozen other telecommunications companies, some now defunct, have issued cards mostly for localised use.

Telecom companies were quick to catch on to the opportunity to sell commemorative issues, with brightly coloured designs, which go on sale for limited periods and are then withdrawn.

BT has issued commemoratives for more than 100 different occasions, from anniversaries to sporting events and worthy causes. The most recent BT commemorative issues include a set of six different 20-unit cards showing scenes from VE Day.

Both BT and Mercury have had a lucrative business in producing limited editions of promotional cards for companies like Thomas Cook, Kellogg's and McDonalds. All of them can be used to make telephone calls, although many contain as few as five units. Some are intended for local use in hotels and stores, and are sold at face value, but most are intended to be given away as novelties to promote the company's wares.

Pharmaceutical companies give doctors and dentists cards to "remind" them of their branded products. What they lack in visual appeal they sometimes make up in rarity.

Shell issued a series of cards made by the now defunct Paytelco which were sold at filling stations for use in forecourt Mercury phone booths. They included one of Ayrton Senna's racing car which is now a much sought- after memorial to the famous driver, worth pounds 11 mint. Castrol has just ordered 50,000 cards to give away with oil and Nescafe also has a current offer. Wadsworth, the Devizes-based brewer, gives away 6X cards with barrels of its eponymous beer.

Cards produced for local use by company employees, oil rigs and so forth are known as closed user groups, and the ultimate closed user is HM Prisons, which now has its own cards, intended to stamp out the use of smuggled phone cards as a prison currency. The former BT chairman Sir George Jefferson produced a special edition of phonecards to give away in place of business cards. The merchant bank SG Warburg produced cards for its chairman, Sir David Scholey, who sometimes gives them away to charities that write to ask Warburg for a donation.

Individuals, clubs and groups such as schools and charities (and much to the annoyance of true collectors a number of dealers and speculators) have commissioned their own limited editions, most of which were never intended to be used and are frequently sold as rarities to besotted collectors at three or four times their cost.

Many speculative issues feature "themes" as diverse as sports heroes, ships, planes, racing cars, dogs, cats, exotic animals and birds.

Collectors complained about bogus limited editions, and BT now insists on a minimum edition of 1,000. A limited edition of 1,000 cards with a face value of five units, ie 50p each, can be commissioned for about pounds 2,400 to pounds 3,000 depending on the number of colours printed. Individual cards may then change hands in the trade at pounds 5 each and retail at pounds 7.50 or more.

True collectors try hard to restrict themselves to cards they can find, or swap with other collectors, at home or overseas. Many collectors risk life and limb and reputations too, travelling round late at night rifling through the boxes BT carefully installs for used cards, which otherwise get thrown around the pavements. Others correspond with collectors abroad and send off parcels of cards in the hope, sometimes misplaced, of getting a job lot of local issues in return.

Most serious collectors now augment their collections by buying cards from dealers at special telephone card fairs, or by sending off for cards advertised in a growing number of specialist magazines like International Telephone Cards, and Telecards Collector International. BT runs a Collectors Club with a freephone number, 0800 838775,

Collectors can buy specialised albums to hold their cards. An illustrated loose-leaf catalogue of UK cards is published by a consortium of UK dealers and obtainable from the Telephone Card Catalogue Company PO Box 1628, Largs, Ayrshire, at pounds 19.95 post free. This lists and prices the definitives and commemoratives and most if not all the private issues. It already contains some 2,000 different cards, and the backers plan to update it with additional pages perhaps twice a year.

Collecting is not cheap, if only because cards have face values from around 10 times the cost of an equivalent postage stamp. Starting a collection from scratch with a mix of bread-and-butter issues and a handful of rare or special interest sets will probably cost around pounds 1,000. Quoted prices include VAT and are compiled from dealers' lists.

They range from a token 50p for common used cards to real money. The 10-unit card in BT's nondescript first issue of cards back in 1982, the Penny Black of UK phone cards, is priced at pounds 110 unused and pounds 30 used.

The equally dull-looking first commemorative issue to celebrate the 1987 Open Golf tournament at Muirfield now fetch pounds 3,000 for an unused set of three values, pounds 750 for a used set and the 100 unit card alone, of which 900 were produced, fetches pounds 2,500 mint and pounds 550 used, if you can find one. Sir George Jefferson cards are catalogued at pounds 1,000 mint and pounds 750 used, Sir David Scholey is pounds 80 for a mint copy, and pounds 50 for one that has been used.

International issues multiply the choice for collectors many times over. More than 100 different countries have issued cards. Prices can be very volatile. Cards issued by Japan Airlines used to fetch pounds 350 each but a recent chance "discovery" of an extra 25 cards sent prices plunging to pounds 150.

But investment houses in Australia and New Zealand are already offering telephone card investment portfolios and it cannot be long before the first similar scheme appears in the UK.

Unlike postage stamps, which have been infuriating and entrancing collectors for 150 years, the telephone card collecting craze could already contain the seeds of its own destruction. In 10 years the technology could have changed completely and the telephone card may have followed the busted bond into history. But while it lasts it is attracting fierce enthusiasm and making and taking real money for some.

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