Collecting: Whatever you do, don't smash them to bits

Meet Woody, Wesley and the rest of the family - the piggy banks that could leave your money box overflowing with coins
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The Independent Online

Piggy banks are packed with nostalgia and, if you're lucky, with money as well.

Piggy banks are packed with nostalgia and, if you're lucky, with money as well.

Like so many other collectables, the humble piggy has risen over the past few years from unloved children's ornament to a valuable item that can change hands for upwards of £50 at car boot sales, on websites and at collectors' fairs.

Many of us will remember slotting coins and notes into a piggy bank in anticipation of the day when it became full and could be smashed to bits (or a bung pulled out).

While today's tax-efficient mini cash individual savings accounts (ISAs) clearly don't offer the same visceral appeal, our porcine pals have achieved their collecting value thanks to the very same commercial imperative - encouraging people to save cash.

Banks and building societies have given away hundreds of thousands of piggy banks over the years, but one lender in particular took the form forward and created a market for its very own pigs.

In 1982, National Westminster decided to launch "Woody", the youngest of a family of piggy banks for young savers, with other relatives becoming available as your savings balance soared.

The famous clan started off as a simple marketing tool but their popularity fuelled astonishing demand. Within three years, manufacturer Wade Ceramics had produced its millionth pig for the bank.

"A deposit of five pounds earned the young saver Woody, the baby pig," says Jenny Wright, Wade's collectables manager.

Older members of the family could be collected by saving a further £25 every six months.

It was some family too. After Woody came Gerald, Maxwell (named after the late media tycoon, Robert), Annabel - and parents Lady Hilary and Sir Nathaniel.

Although NatWest stopped this particular promotion in 1988, another family member stepped into the breach: Cousin Wesley. To earn him, you had to open a children's bond in which £1,000 was invested over five years. But the new piggy bank didn't enjoy the same popularity as Woody and his family, and only 5,000 were produced.

If you had a NatWest children's account in that decade and can't remember throwing out the piggy bank, you would be well advised to hunt it down.

"Sir Nathaniel is worth £50 to £130, and Woody will sell for £15 to £20," says collector Piet van-Drunick. "With Sir Nathaniel, I've managed to buy genuine ones for between 50p and £25."

The piggy banks are likely to keep their value too. David Chown, who runs the Official Wade Collectors Centre in Ford, West Sussex, is bullish in his opinion: "The price has risen every year - it's an excellent investment."

These mass-produced piggy banks are not such a far cry from their centuries-old ancestors - clay pots that were used to store money. According to the specialist website www.piggybankpage.co.uk, one specimen from Bali is thought to date back some 1,500 years. The pots were made from orange clay, known as "pygg", which could have given the piggy bank its name.

There are alternative theories, however. In some European countries, including the Netherlands, pigs are believed by many to bring good luck.

Madeleine Marsh, editor of the Millers Collectibles Price Guide, offers another explanation: "Money boxes have been manufactured in Europe since the 17th century - and the fat pig was a symbol of wealth."

By the early 18th century, such boxes or jars were known as pig banks in England, according to www.piggybankpage.co.uk.

On a less innocent note, the popularity of the NatWest piggy banks has led to concerns over authenticity. "There are three forgeries of Cousin Wesley that I'm aware of," says Mr Chown. "You have to be really careful with authenticity, bearing in mind the price they are going for."

The best way to check is to stand the piggy bank next to one verified as genuine and see how they compare. The Wade Collectors Centre has a genuine Wesley for this purpose and can authenticate models brought in by customers.

Its height should be 5 3/4in (146mm) and it should be 4in (102mm) wide. It should have the incised lettering of "Wade England" (as should all authentic, Wade-produced pigs), and the NatWest bung should be a good fit.

Wesley's clothes are a clue, too; look for a green shirt and blue cap and trousers.

Since forgers use a mould to create copies, the fakes are slightly smaller than the real thing, says Mr van-Drunick.

If it is rarity that you crave, look no further than the "Rockin' Max", owned by Phil Denton of rock band Elixir, an original Wade Maxwell piggy bank that received a rock'n'roll makeover treatment.

Look out too for a precious Woody glazed with 22-carat gold leaf and presented to members of the NatWest board of directors and a lucky few competition winners over the years. There are just 25 in existence and these are the most highly valued NatWest piggies of all.

"[A golden piggy bank] with a certificate of authentication went for £900 on eBay earlier this year but I've never seen one," says Mr Chown.

Given the popularity of its piggies, it is perhaps surprising that NatWest stopped the promotion back in 1988.

However, according to a bank spokesman, it was simply felt that the offer had run its course. It was replaced by the World Saver Account, in which the account holder was given a panda money box and cash was donated to the World Wildlife Fund.

If you do fancy dipping your snout in the collectable piggy bank trough, "it's worth seeing what you can find at car boot sales and jumble sales," says Mr van-Drunick. "But don't spend more than £10 on one."

If you use search engines on the web, he recommends that you don't type in "NatWest" before "piggy bank".

"It inevitably means that the owner expects a higher price [as they know their value]."

WANT TO BRING HOME THE BACON?

Prices

From £10 for Woody to £250 for a very good Cousin Wesley.

More information

www.piggybankpage.co.uk - comprehensive information on piggy banks.

Wade: www.wade.co.uk, www.wadecollectorscentre.com, 01782 255255.

www.walshbrothers.co.uk - sells non-NatWest piggy banks and similar keepsakes.

www.geocities.com/Paris/9896 - for piggy bank enthusiasts.

The Collectors Old Toy Shop: 89 Northgate, Halifax, West Yorks HX1 1XF; 01422 822148.

Events

Wade Christmas Bonanza - Saturday 4 December 2004, 10am to 4pm at Official Wade Collectors Centre, Ford Lane, Ford, Arundel, West Sussex.

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