Collector's Corner: Succumb to the allure of adult playthings

A disappointing auction of Corgi cars shouldn't put you off toys as an investment
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The Independent Online

Bonhams recently held a much publicised sale on behalf of Corgi the model car makers. The sale was of its archive of prototype and "number one" vehicles. Bearing in mind the seemingly never-ending rise in prices for collectable toys, you'd think big prices and rabid interest was the order of the day when they were sold. It wasn't.

The cars were mostly from the 1980s onwards, but their age isn't the main reason for why prices weren't higher – it was the fact that all of the cars were produced specifically as collectors' items. Corgi was one of the first companies to start producing limited edition toys specifically for collectors as it recognised the growing interest. The reasons why original toys are so collectable is because in good condition they are in short supply, as most were played with, and secondly, they have enormous nostalgia value. It appears that once we get to a certain point in life where we have a disposable income, we want to buy back the cars and toys we had as children, or perhaps wanted but didn't get. Cars produced specifically for collectors might be in limited editions, but by their nature, most of those models will survive in mint condition and there is no nostalgia factor.

"The sale didn't go as well as expected," admits Leigh Gotch, head of Bonhams' toy department. "It was a reflection of that market place. Collectors of these modern limited editions are very much the buyer who is going to buy directly from Corgi as they are produced, and it's a very different market place to the traditional toys which have a much stronger base. Traditional Corgi toys are doing very well at auction."

Indeed the top lot in the sale was for cars which haven't even been produced yet, which again reflects the retail side of this area. Somebody paid £5,760 for a number one of every car as they are produced during 2008, that's over 350 models so you are only talking about £16.50 per car! After that, the highest price paid was for a briefcase set of eight limited edition James Bond cars which made £1,260 – just £157 per car. For a single car, the highest price reached was £1,080 – for a James Bond DB5. Compare that to some of the top prices paid for standard issue original cars such as a mid 1960s Pop Art Mini, model no. 349 which reached £2,300, mint in box recently, and you can see where the focus of the market lies.

The traditional market is undoubtedly booming. "In our last couple of sales, prices have definitely rocketed," says Andrew Reed, cataloguer with Vectis Auctions. "They've probably gone up on quality mint boxed items as much 20 per cent in the past three to four months. So many new investors and people are happy to wait for something mint in box. A standard model might sell for £50 to £60, but a pristine mint one they will wait for and pay three or four times that for it. We had 150 lots of mint boxed Corgi last week and all went above estimate."

Vectis's toy auctions are an indicator of just how big the toy collecting market has become. Just 10 years ago it had one building and a handful of staff, now it has eight massive warehouses and over 40 staff. It's one of the world's leading specialist toy auctioneers.

"Toys overall have taken an increase every year in the past 10 years," says Mr Reed. About 70 per cent of the toys they sell don't stay in the UK, but are bought throughout the world. But, from an investment point of view, can those prices keep on rising? The answer seems to be yes.

"We say 'can it keep on rising?' after every auction," says Mr Reed, "I think it can so long as the quality of the toys keeps coming in. The whole market is very strong and most importantly there are new collectors worldwide registering every month so there's more demand every single sale."

Within the booming market there are cycles. Ten years ago it was toys from the late 60s and early 70s which were getting collectable. Now it's the late 70s and early 80s. As the population ages, so the children of those decades grow up and become collectors. TV toys like Kojak and Starsky and Hutch are taking big jumps in price, but that's not the only current trend.

"Corgi are doing particularly well at present, but while TV toys remain buoyant, the biggest jumps are on the normal Corgi vehicles." Says Mr Reed. "Items like Bedford vans, commercial vehicles and standard cars are jumping in price the most. For example a model 409, Corgi Ford Zepher was selling for £110-£130 a year ago, those are now selling for between £240 to £300, or a model 151 red Lotus racing car is now £750, but a year ago you would have paid £400-£500." Not a bad return for a year.

Leigh Gotch at Bonhams agrees the market is strong. "I believe prices will at least stay steady, and for traditional toys they will continue to increase. Over the last 10 to 15 years we've found good examples do hold their value and increase over time. Lots of collectors would prefer to put their money into something like this rather than put it in the bank, at least you've got something to look at and you know your money is safe."

Ultimately none of us know how the market will go, but experience suggests that if you buy quality, and you choose original toys, not collectors' items, then you're probably making a very adult decision about some juvenile collectables.

Bonhams next sale is on 21 November (0870 027 3628; www.bonhams.com); the next Vectis sale is from 6-8 November (01642 750616; www.vectis.co.u)

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