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Money: Make a little pin money

Rare tie pins are stylish investments that are popular with collectors. By John Andrew
"Today, the tie pin is one of the few items of jewellery which enables a man to show off his dress style and individual personality," comments Alexandra Rhodes of Sotheby's. Tomorrow the auction house will be offering a collection of more than 130 pins. It traces the history of tie pins during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Throughout this period, jewellers seemed to excel at producing fashionable jewels in miniature for their male clientele.

There are simple but elegant gem set pieces, animals in plain gold, others studded with small diamonds, as well as fun pieces like the gold footballer kicking a pearl ball, an aeroplane, and an enamel and baroque pearl pin deigned as a bagpipe.

Estimates start at pounds 250 for a couple of racing-related pins and range up to pounds l,200 for a late Victorian, crescent-shaped, rose-cut diamond.

Sadly, the tie pin is no longer a popular form of male adornment in the UK, though there are signs of a revival on the Continent. Our ancestors began to decorate their neckwear with decorative pins in the 1700s. In the second half of the 19th century, their popularity increased. Indeed, they remained an essential feature for the well-dressed man up until the 1930s.

Gone are the days when neckwear is a drab piece of cloth knotted round the collar. The tie pin is definitely not required today to provide a touch of light relief to dull attire.

However, when good pins appear at auction, there is a steady demand, which has resulted in a gradual increase in prices in recent years. Twenty years ago, a gem set pin that retailed at a little over pounds 10 would sell today for a figure approaching pounds 200. However, the largest price increases have been for quality novelty pieces. In December 1994, Sotheby's at Billingshurst, West Sussex, offered a gold-enamel pin of "Punch". Estimated at a modest pounds 250, it found a buyer at pounds 2,185 (including Buyers Premium of 16 per cent). Last September, Sotheby's in New Bond Street offered a gold-enamel monkey dressed as a footman. Estimated at pounds 300-pounds 400, it climbed in price to pounds 3,220 before the hammer fell.

As David Lancaster of Christie's South Kensington comments, the price differential for a tie pin of an unusual design and one that is good but quite ordinary can be immense. The market for tie pins is small, but, nevertheless, collectors use their financial muscle to secure the unusual. However, for every astounding price secured, there are thousands of good examples that sell for more modest sums.

The beauty of tie pins is that they can be purchased for quite modest sums. For example, last year I purchased a charming late Victorian gold heart enamelled in royal blue, its borders set with half-seed pearls. The price was pounds 75. It is certainly quite possible to secure stylish pieces below pounds 200, though prices move upwards with the size and quality of the stones. For example, an old cut, brilliant, one carat, solitaire diamond pin can sell for pounds 600-pounds 800, but if the stone is of the top quality and colour and modern cut, it is likely to sell for around pounds 6,000.

As with all areas of jewellery, there can be many pitfalls and plus factors. The plusses are quality of workmanship, condition, style and, of course, the quality of the stones. The original box is desirable but not essential. The pitfalls are modern reproductions, damaged items or pieces that have been converted from earrings or other jewels. Most tie pins are not hallmarked or signed by the maker. However, pieces signed by Faberge, Cartier or Tiffany naturally sell at a premium. Indeed, a Faberge imperial presentation pin in its original case is likely to sell for up to pounds 4,500.

Auctions are not necessarily the cheapest source for material. Antique centres, shops and fairs as well as jewellers are also good hunting grounds. Before you buy, go out and look and learn. It is only by handling pieces and talking to auction house experts and dealers that you learn about quality. By comparing prices, you will also learn to spot the good buys.

As to whether tie pins prove to be a good long-term investment depends on the price you pay today and future demand. Apart from an increasing interest from the continental male, women have also discovered that a tie pin is ideal for lapel wear. A period costume drama on TV could perhaps result in its return to popularity for the adornment of the British male. If not, there will always be an interest from collectors.