It's a red-letter day for the 'antique' post-box

Enthusiasts put their cheque in the post

Once upon a time, old post- boxes signed off and died. They were either scrapped, sold off by the Royal Mail or given to retiring postmen. But last year the sales stopped, following discussions with English Heritage, which wants to preserve these solid red symbols of Britishness on our street corners.

Once upon a time, old post- boxes signed off and died. They were either scrapped, sold off by the Royal Mail or given to retiring postmen. But last year the sales stopped, following discussions with English Heritage, which wants to preserve these solid red symbols of Britishness on our street corners.

On one hand, this is good news for the 800 or so members of the Letter Box Study Group (LBSG), who spend their spare time "spotting" letter-boxes, photographing them and noting down their specifications. They have campaigned since 1976 for the preservation and appreciation of all types of letter-box, sometimes leading to certain ones obtaining preservation orders as listed buildings.

On the other hand, for those who collect them - and there are many at home and abroad - there are now fewer available to buy or restore.

For Arthur Reader, though, an electrician who lives on the Isle of Wight and owns 141 letter- boxes, the concern is not so much that prices could go up but that the boxes could be in jeopardy. "The Royal Mail is already fighting a losing battle against vandals and thieves," he says, "and it's not easy to keep the old ones, particularly the lamp- boxes, as they can get stolen. If people think they're valuable, they might just take them."

That is a danger, although there is not much chance of a pillar-box being stolen: these sturdy iron constructions can have a "root" underground of up to three feet deep. However, they may have lost doors or, importantly, locks. "The real value is in the lock," says Tony Inglis of Unicorn Kiosks, which reconditions and sells all types of letter-box and phone kiosk. "The price of a box very much depends on its condition - a good wire cage inside, the enamel plate in good condition and nice brass fittings - but it's rare to find one with the lock still on. Chubb made them specially for letter-boxes but they tend to come off before the box comes on the market."

In fact, very few whole post- boxes are delivered to the market. Mr Reader says he picked up most of his collection as scrap, which he then rebuilt or reconditioned. In some instances, he had to use three boxes to make one. "I've got hold of them because I've known a lot of people up and down the country who worked for Royal Mail," he explains, "and they've known when old boxes, or bits of boxes, were being thrown out."

He, like many other members of the LBSG, describes himself as a historian first and a collector second. One dedicated member travelled all the way to the Falkland Islands to photograph a George VI pillar box in Fort Stanley. The society's secretary, Avice Harms, says: "Collecting letter-boxes is not an investment; it's a way of saving our history and heritage. Americans love collecting them but we don't want to see too many go out of the country."

It is hard to see how American collectors can get hold of letter-boxes here, other than paying top dollar to Unicorn Kiosks: a really good pillar-box in mint condition costs up to £3,500 plus VAT.

"They do turn up in antique centres around Britain," says Ms Harms. "You sometimes see them on eBay [the internet auction site] for silly prices, and there's a shop in Newbury [Berkshire] that seems to get them sometimes, but I don't know where they get them from."

When Hong Kong got rid of all its British-style boxes, they were bought by Americans and Japanese collectors. But even with foreign interest, prices have not really risen much in the past 10 years. It is possible that, owing to the determination of English Heritage, the boxes will stay where they are for now, which means that those owned by collectors will have rarity value in 10 years' time. But that is a long time to keep big, bulky "antiques" if you don't have a real feeling for them.

PILLAR TO POST

Prices

Lamp-boxes (the smallest ones, originally mounted on lamp-posts) cost £300 to £400 each. Wall-boxes sell for £450 to £1,100, and pillar- boxes £1,600 to £3,500. (These are prices for whole boxes in reasonable to good condition.)

More information

* The Letter Box Study Group - www.lbsg.org - costs £8 a year to join. You receive a newsletter and see other enthusiasts at meetings twice a year.

* www.Consignia.com/heritage has lots of information about stamps, boxes and post history.

* Paul's Unofficial Letterbox Pages ( www.wicks.org/pulp) and Malcolm Smith's Postbox Pages ( www.masmith100.freeserve.co.uk) offer photographs and information from enthusiasts.

* Unicorn Kiosks: www.unicornkiosks.com, 020 8651 2436.

* Bath Postal Museum ( www.bath.co.uk/postal-museum) keeps exhibits of all things postal dating back to Victorian times.

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