From Hornby and Dinky to Ladybird and Beano, there's treasure in the toy chest

Those relics of childhood gathering dust in your loft could fetch a good price from nostalgic collectors, finds Alessia Horwich

Wish your old toy trunk was stuffed with cash? It could be. Many attics, lofts and garages in Britain are full of neglected relics of our youth – dusty books, comics, classic toys – that collectors would just love to possess. And they'll pay for the privilege. So maybe it's time for a credit- crunch clear-out.

Items like these go hand in hand with nostalgia and most of today's collectors are people who grew up between the 1940s and 1970s – the golden age of classic toys. They dominate the market simply because they now have money to spend, and it is for this reason that old miniatures of trains and cars sell so well.

When you have a rummage around in your store room, your loft or garage, look out for well-known brands. Hornby is the crème de la crème of toy trains. The company started making them in the early 1920s and the hand-painted models have come to represent the heyday of the steam locomotive. Leigh Gotch, the head of toys at Bonhams, the auctioneer, says: "Trains are hot at the moment. They are a good investment and we can sell them easily."

Dinky and Corgi, two of the biggest manufacturers of toy cars and trucks, are also revered names for diecast lovers. The simplicity of the designs is the charm. Rarer pieces can sell for thousands.

Lead toy soldiers, manufactured up to the 1960s, are also popular, preferably as part of a complete set. They often represent armies and regiments that no longer exist and are snapped up by serious collectors.

Children's books can also be big sellers. First editions, mostly from 20th-century authors, usually bring in the most money, though any titles that were popular in their day may also have a market, from Ladybird classics to Roald Dahl's early work. Marvel, DC, Beano and Eagle comic books can fetch a good price too.

As you'd expect, the better the condition of the collectible, the higher the price you should be able to get; most classic toys will have little value if they're in a bad state of repair. However, that rule may not apply if you own a piece that is very hard to find. "A damaged rare toy is still going to have a value," says Mr Gotch. "Whether it be 70, 50 or 30 per cent of the full value is another thing. We can estimate a price but sometimes we don't even know until we get into the auction. A lot of the time, when you've only got minimal damage, I would say leave it alone. That's part of history, it's part of the item. Don't try to touch it up – you'll lose value."

For more modern toys, it has to be "mint in box". Danie Ware from cult megastore Forbidden Planet says: "These sell for massive multiplications of the value of a toy that has been taken out of the packaging. If collectors want statuettes and action figures, they want them in the box."

The first stop before you sell is a toy-swap fair (regional ones can be found in your local paper). Here you can look at similar items and get a good idea of how much your old toys or books might be worth.

When it comes to the sale itself, you have three main options. If you've got a real gem, a dealer will know where to find a buyer and will usually pay you a good price straight away. Dealers are also more likely to buy damaged items to fix up and sell on.

Selling via a specialist auction gives you direct access to buyers who are specifically interested in your kind of item. Toy specialist Daniel Agnew says: "Auctions are much better. They have the contacts to attract the right people, and because the auctioneers are knowledgeable, patrons trust their judgement. So you're likely to get a stronger price."

But selling at auction may not come cheaply. At Bonhams, the only large auction house that still deals in toys, you have to pay 15 per cent commission, plus a 1.5 per cent insurance fee and VAT on the sales charge.

Selling online costs less, although many auction sites do charge for listing and take a commission on the final sale price. But you can sell whenever you feel like it and you can do so from the comfort of your own living room. Hilary Kay, the toy expert on the Antiques Roadshow, says, "The internet is a great option. Objects that are really easy to describe accurately [most of the information for classic toys is written on the outside of the box] are perfect for selling online. You may find that the best of both worlds is to go to an auction house with the facility for people to bid live online as well."

So what kind of profit can be made? Really, it depends on what you've got to sell. An individual boxed Hornby, Dinky or Corgi toy in mint condition can sell for between £40 and £200. But if it's a rare model, you can get in excess of £2,000.

Meanwhile, a classic Ladybird book could fetch £200 or £300, two or three hundred pounds. though in 2003 Sotheby's sold a first edition (you can tell because it's hardback, published in 1997 and has a number sequence of 10 down to one) of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone for £12,000.

Philip Erington, the deputy director of Books at Sotheby's, says: "The one important factor where condition of books is concerned is the dust jacket. Where it is present, there is considerably more value added on."

Rare comic books are harder to find, but a first edition of Beano recently sold for £7,500 and the world's most valuable comic, Action Comics No.1, which introduced Superman, sold in an auction in February for $470,000 (£335,000).

For future investors, the hottest collector toys right now are Urban Vinyl art toys. These three-dimensional figurines are a natural progression from record album covers and the graffiti street art that started in Japan in the early 1990s and are now appearing in the West.

"Urban Vinyl are extremely limited editions, extremely collectible and have very high price points," Ms Ware says. "They can sell new from £2 right the way up to hundreds. I bought one last year for £50 and it's already going on eBay for £400."

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