Money: Old and decorative but very cheap

Collect to invest: Buckles unearthed by metal detectors are worth picking up, says John Windsor
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The Independent Online
A new antique: can there be such a thing? Decorative metal buckles - very old but very cheap - are the latest collectable. A mere 50p will buy you one dating as far back as 1250.

Tens of thousands of them, lost in fields and rivers by nobles and peasants down the centuries, are being unearthed by metal detector enthusiasts. With the exception of old coins, they are now the commonest find worth collecting.

The 50p example might be a circular copper alloy buckle, perhaps from a yeoman's shoe, still with its iron wire pin, the size of a modern 5p piece. For pounds 5-pounds 10 you could make up a set of half a dozen buckles from shoes, sword belts, hats, cravats or horse harness, showing changing styles from medieval times to about 1800. After that date buckles became plain and functional, no longer fashion accessories.

Antique dealer Nigel Mills, who trades in the Monday morning market at London's Covent Garden, says: "Buckles are fascinating - the one piece of wealth that everybody has owned since early medieval times. They were made to last, to be passed down the generations, so even many of those lost in medieval times can still be worn."

The first guide book on buckles has just been published. Its author is Ross Whitehead, a 31-year-old metal detectorist and carpenter with a first class degree in archaeology, who lives in Torbay, Devon. Hitherto, drawings of buckles in history books, even histories of costume, have tended to be vague, because so little was known about them. Now historians and collectors can browse through his book's 785 photographs and illustrations documenting for the first time style changes spanning eight centuries.

Mr Whitehead says: "Compared with buckles, old coins are impersonal. The thrill of digging up a 600-year-old buckle in a ploughed field is that it is a tangible link with the person who last wore it, all those centuries ago. Coins are not intrinsically more valuable than buckles but they are comparatively expensive because so many people collect them.

"A Georgian silver buckle, although perhaps worth pounds 50-pounds 60 to a silver specialist, can still be picked up for a fiver or so in a flea market because so few general dealers realise what they are. For a very small outlay you can make a collection of bargains from the Middle Ages."

In Mr Whitehead's book, each of the 785 specimens, many from his own collection, has been priced by Mr Mills. The commonest prices - for complete, undamaged buckles with patinated surface and pin intact - are 50p, pounds 1 and pounds 2. For a few pounds more, you could buy the sort of ornate buckle that the chivalrous medieval upper classes favoured for spurs and sword belts. Priced at pounds 22: a 7cm long brass buckle with engraved scallop-shaped frame dated 1250-1400.

Shoe buckles are the most plentiful sort of buckle, dating from the restoration of Charles II in 1660. The newly liberated aristocracy made a fashion of big, elaborate ones. By Georgian times, the nob about town was wearing huge rectangular shoe buckles such as the 1733-1790s 6.5cm wide cast pewter specimen priced pounds 25 in the book, in raised openwork with four delicate semi-circles and six oval panels with beaded edges.

If you think that sounds expensive, consider the high price of new buckles in Birmingham, which by the latter part of the 18th century was turning out an annual 2.5 million alloy buckles - at a hefty 2s 6d (121/2p each). That is anything from pounds 10-pounds 20 each in today's money - not so different from the pounds 20 you might pay today for a well-preserved specimen.

Nigel Mills (0181-504 2569). "Buckles 1250-1800" by Ross Whitehead, pounds 10 (inc. p&p) from Greenlight Publishing, The Publishing House, Hatfield Peverel, Chelmsford, Essex CM3 2HF.

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