Collector's Corner: Box clever for a model investment

Toy cars in their original packaging are now a real mini adventure, says Gwyn Jones

For most grown-ups, toy cars are something that used to be fun when they were kids. But a select band of collectors is willing to spend thousands of pounds on top-of-the-range mini-motors. "In the past five years, you'd have seen a much bigger return on your money if it had been in toys than if it was placed with a bank," says Andrew Reed of Vectis Auction, the UK's leading toy specialist. "We have investors spending from a few hundred pounds a month up to £50,000 or £60,000."

Bonhams' toy department has also noticed the long-term upturn in prices. "I still see more people buying and prices going up," says the auction house's Lee Gotch. "In other areas of antiques and collectables, we've seen prices drop."

Even so, collectors are becoming more discerning, says Hugo Marsh of Christie's. "As the market has become more sophisticated, the gap between routine items and the good stuff has widened so that instead of a rarity being worth four times more, it's now worth up to 200 times more.

"The most expensive toy car we've sold recently was a Dinky Bentalls van. In 1994, it would have been worth £500, but we sold it for £11,500 because it was a previously unseen variation. More typically, for something like a Dinky Morris Oxford, a staple 1950s car, you'd pay £60 to £80 for a mint, boxed item."

TV- and film-related items, especially from the Seventies, are very popular. "Two or three years ago, the average price for a Corgi Starsky & Hutch car would have been £50 to £60, if mint and boxed. Now, it's £100 to £150," says Reed.

Corgi, Dinky and Matchbox are the best-known names, but there are thousands of small manufacturers coming to the fore. "We had a taxi made by a small British company, Mercury, that we estimated would go for £30 to £50. It went for more than £2,000," Reed says. "People can't afford the rare items from the big names, so the smaller manufacturers are becoming more popular."

However, Gotch believes the Seventies will prove to have been the last decade to produce collectable cars. "In the past 20 years, children haven't played with toy cars, so it's hard to see where the next lot is coming from," he says.

"Dinky made its last car in 1978, and others, such as Corgi, now make mostly collectors' models. I don't see these going far because people keep them. The old toys are the ones that are solid, steady investments, and prices will keep going up as they get rarer and rarer."

But this is no get-rich-quick scheme; allow five to 10 years to make a serious profit, and buy only toys in the best condition with boxes. At one recent Vectis sale, an Avengers box on its own sold for £300 - far more than the two cars that would have been in it, which might raise £80 or so on their own. Had box and cars been sold together, the toy might have made up to £600.

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