Turn your spring cleaning finds into gold dust

That old book or ornament in the attic could be worth thousands, says Gwyn Jones

If you can't face spring-cleaning your house this year, take inspiration from the tale of a 70-year-old homeowner from Salisbury who will soon be £50,000 better off following a clearout.

If you can't face spring-cleaning your house this year, take inspiration from the tale of a 70-year-old homeowner from Salisbury who will soon be £50,000 better off following a clearout.

The lady in question, who wants to remain anonymous, almost threw out the cracked porcelain figure she found in her attic but, on a whim, decided to check its value. Her local auction house, Woolley & Wallis, identified the figure as the earliest English porcelain blue-and-white figure known to exist - it is expected to raise £50,000 at auction next month.

Such windfalls are more common than one might think. Kathy Taylor, of Vectis Auctioneers, has just raised £5,200 for the owner of a rare Steiff golliwog found in a London house clearance. "We believe it was one of the first gollies ever made in around 1913," she says. "They have occasionally come up for sale over the past 80 years, but never in such exceptional condition."

The question is, how do you spot this hidden treasure? It's often the most unexpected items that have real value.

Let's say you have a box of Queen Elizabeth Coronation souvenirs, or the original Coronation programme from 1953. Alongside these items, your dusty, old toybox might include a selection of Thomas the Tank Engine wooden Brio trains bought for your son as recently as 2000.

Most people would expect the Coronation collection to raise the cash, given the royal link and the fact these items go back 50 years. In fact, the very recent Brio series is more valuable. The eight Thomas the Tank Engine models could raise as much as £200, compared with just £20 for the royal stuff.

Value is essentially a product of rarity rather than age, though fashions in the collecting world are crucial, too.

The internet is a good place to start valuing your junk - a quick search on eBay, the world's largest online auction site, would have quickly shown you the true value of your Coronation items versus the Thomas trains.

But it's crucial to do your research before setting off for the local car boot sale. You may not know the true value of what you own, but there will be a potential buyer out there who does. That could mean losing out on a decent profit.

If you do have a valuable item, the best way to cash in is likely to be through an auction. The auction house's experts will give you an idea of exactly what you might raise and, at the sale, collectors can bid the price up to its full value.

In addition to your local auction house, there are many specialist firms around the country, as well as the big London auctioneers. The latter are often more likely to get you the top prices, as more collectors will see what you're selling.

For the smaller value items, either your local library or an online bookstore, such as amazon.co.uk, should help you find price guides on every subject you can think of. Amateur collectors' clubs are another good source of information.

Finally, if you do discover something of value, one option is to keep it as a nest egg. If so, don't put it back in the loft. The changes in temperature in the attics of most homes make this one of the worst places to store anything for the long term - take expert advice.

RECORDS

Old record collections can be surprisingly valuable, but remember the rarity principle. "Promo" discs are much rarer than general releases, so you're in with a good chance of making some money if you own one. Similarly, picture discs and coloured vinyl are usually of limited release, so they are also likely to be worth more.

While big-name bands are popular, more obscure acts will have fewer records. But even different versions of the same record can realise varying values. For example, Pink Floyd's Piper At The Gates Of Dawn blue-and-black label LP in stereo can sell for about £75, but you can double that for the black-and-white version.

Condition is paramount - not just of the record but also the sleeve.

For more information, there are several useful sources. VIP is Europe's biggest organiser of record fairs and holds events around the country which are a good way to browse and research. Call 0116 277 1133 or visit www.vip-24.com.

Another useful source is www.gemm.com, a huge marketplace for record dealers. It has a good search engine enabling you to check the value of different records.

BOOKS

First editions are generally the most valuable, but with popular modern authors, look out for first novels.

These will probably have had shorter print runs and are therefore likely to be more collectable. Any books that have been turned into films also tend to rise in popularity and therefore value.

It's not always easy to tell if a book is a first edition. But generally speaking, if there is no mention of an edition number in the front of the book - it doesn't say "second impression" or "third edition", say - you can assume it is a first edition.

However, the modern system is slightly more complicated, as a numbering system has been introduced. The numbers 1-9 are printed in the front of the book. If they are all there, it is a first edition; 1-8 means it is a second edition; 1-7 signifies a third edition and so on.

Rare books make surprisingly large sums. A 1961 first edition of John le Carré's Call For The Dead recently raised £5,640. The seller, Bloomsbury, was able to cash in on the fact the novel introduces George Smiley. The same firm has just sold a first-edition hardback of Douglas Adams's The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy for £353. The book, published in 1979, was rare because the original cloth dust-jacket was still in good condition.

Bloomsbury has raised £447 for a first edition of Louis De Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin - it was signed and dated by the author and had its original dust-jacket.

SPORTS GOODS

If your grandparents were golfing enthusiasts or fishing fans, hand-me-downs are definitely worth investigating. Golf is the most-established sporting market - an insignificant-looking feather golf ball might fetch £28,000 at auction.

There is also value to be found in memorabilia linked to cricket, skiing, rugby, horse-racing and football items. Angling collecting is also popular, if you know what you're doing - there is often more value in accessories than fishing rods. For example, antique reels, lures and baits can all sell well.

Bonhams expert Charles Kewley recently visited one client's house and was presented with various fishing rods of little value. The client admitted a bunch of accessories were in her skip outside. After Kewley had dug these items out of the rubbish, he sold them on behalf of the client for £1,800. Even esoteric items such as the bottles used to carry oil for reels are jumping up in value.

TOYS

Condition is particularly critical with toys, which can end up battered when children play with them. For items to make the really big prices, they need to come with their original packaging. The boxes themselves will generally be two-thirds or even three-quarters of the final value, even if the toy itself is in a perfect condition.

Television- and film-related items are particularly popular, especially if they are currently being aired. Dr Who toys are experiencing a revival, for example. A 1965 Daleks snowstorm with its original box recently made £640 at a Vectis auction.

The Pedigree Sindy Doll is rising in value.

And a 1982 Outdoor Girl doll inside her box recently made £92 at Vectis.

POSTCARDS

The market is flooded with common scenes of cathedrals, coloured seaside views - anything that would have been sent back from holidays has been mass-produced.

Surprisingly, some of the most valuable cards are topographical or street-scene pictures that are not of well-known attractions.

Small village postcards are much rarer and "animation" is one of the key factors. Empty streets are less desirable because people want to see something happening - collectors are particularly interested in one-off events.

JHD Smith's Picture Postcard Values book is your first port of call for valuation advice, along with Picture Postcard Monthly and Picture Postcard Annual. Call 0115 937 4079 for more details.

COMICS

Comics are a common item in people's attics, but while many people know an early Beano can be valuable - the record is £12,100 for a Beano number 1 - other titles are saleable, too.

As people get older, different eras become more important - the thirtysomethings of today who were the comic-buyers of the Seventies are now pushing up prices for stuff they used to read as kids. In 1973, 2000AD was launched - the first three issues, with their free gifts, can sell for up to £550 each if they are in mint condition.

Even girls' comics are now beginning to rise in value and although these later comics were produced in greater quantities, excellent-quality items can still fetch good money. Look at the comics section on eBay and you'll find all sorts of comics from the Seventies selling for £5 or £6 each.

CHECK THE SHED

Finally, add the garden shed to this spring's clearout. While most old tools are only worth a few pounds each, some are rare and can sell for tens of thousands of pounds.

Some items, such as those with ivory handles or with ebony and brass on them, are clearly nicely made and therefore likely to fetch good money. But look out for wooden planes. These fairly ugly lumps of wood can carry real value if they have a stamp from 18th-century wooden plane makers. If you happen to have one made by John Davenport, you're in luck - one sold last year at a Tony Murland auction for £1,672.

Likewise, measuring instruments such as folding boxwood rules are mostly only worth around £3 each.

SUCCESS STORIES

A bronze circular relief sculpture that had been languishing in a cupboard under the stairs set a world record when it sold for £6,949,250 at Christie's.

The owners had inherited the roundel (right) and hidden it away, as they didn't like it and thought it was probably Victorian. It turned out to be one of the most important sculpture discoveries of recent times, dating from 1480-1500.

More modestly - but still of huge value - a rare train nameplate that had been languishing in a loft has just sold for £33,500.

The City of Gloucester nameplate (below) was found in an attic of a house purchased in 1979. The owners suspected it might be worth something, but were stunned when it sold at Andrew Grant Auctioneers, in Worcestershire, for double its estimate. Antique train name plates are sought after by a new breed of younger collectors, which is pushing up prices.

Finally, a West Country woman who was having a spring clean called in a Bonhams valuer to look at some ceramics. They turned out to be worth very little, but as he was leaving, the valuer spotted an old rug stored in the garage. It turned out to be a relatively rare Ushak carpet which is now expected to sell for £8,000 at auction later this month.

USEFUL CONTACTS

Sotheby's: 020 7293 5522, www.sothebys.com.

Bonhams: 020 7393 3900, www.bonhams.com.

Christie's: 020 7839 9060, www.christies.co.uk.

Specialist auction houses

Comic Book Postal Auctions: 020 7424 0007, www.compalcomics.com.

Potteries Specialist: 01782 286622, www.potteriesauctions.co.uk.

BBR: 01226 745156, www.onlinebbr.com.

Vectis Auctions (toys and model trains): 01642 750616, www.vectis.co.uk.

Spink (coins, medals and stamps): 020 7563 4000, www.spink.com.

Tony Murland Tool Shop: 01449 722992, www.antiquetools.co.uk.

Trevor Vennett-Smith (sport, cinema and cigarette cards): 0115 983 0541, www.vennett-smith.com.

Mullock Madeley (angling): 0169 477 1771, www.mullockmadeley.co.uk.

Bosleys Military Auctioneers: 01628 488188.

Andrew Grant Auctioneers: 01905 357547.

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