Steamed up over a nameplate

Collect to invest: Railwayana is the trainspotter's revenge and a virgin market
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You could call it the trainspotters' revenge. Decorative brass locomotive nameplates, sold to railway enthusiasts at scrap value from British Railways stores in the Sixties, can be worth up to pounds 25,000 and prices are still soaring.

It sounds like an investors' dream. Why not buy one now, re-sell in a couple of years and pocket a cool few thousand? Did not a telephone bidder from Hong Kong bid pounds 15,000 for the York and Ainsty LNER hunt class nameplate in March, before being pipped at pounds 15,100? The Chinese are getting in on it. Quick: who do I make my cheque out to?

In fact, the Hong Kong bidder was a British collector. The question to ask is why the railwayana market, in spite of rapid and continuous gains, is still virgin, unsullied by speculators. Where's the catch? On the face of it, there isn't one. I shall give reasons why you should not try to make a killing out of nameplates, but first I must appeal to your sentiment. The only specialised commercial railwayana auctions are not in London, the speculators' lair, but in the dim and distant city of Sheffield, where six times a year up to 700 railway buffs assemble in the hall of Myers Grove comprehensive school to bid at auctions organised by Ian Wright, 54, who used to be the school's deputy head.

A railway enthusiast himself, he held his first auction of railwayana - besides nameplates, other memorabilia including crested cutlery and chamberpots - at the school in 1987, to raise funds for it. By 1990, regular sales were making pounds 40,000 a year profit and he retired to make them his profession. Each sale now totals some pounds 190,000 and the school gets pounds 1,000 plus hall rent. Today, he ventures south to auction a big private collection in Hendon.

No auctioneer or dealer can compete with Mr Wright. Some auctioneers send lots to him, rather than auction them themselves. The only reason that Bonhams got a 558-lot chunk of Sir William McAlpine's railwayana collection last September was that it had the resources to mount a sale in double quick time. "We've just about cornered the market", says Mr Wright. "There are no dealers at my sales, just collectors who are happy to pay top money."

Indeed, they do. The record pounds 25,000 was paid for the nameplate of the Southern Railway's Battle of Britain class locomotive 603 squadron, built in 1948 and broken up in 1967. Most of the Battle of Britain nameplates were presented to the RAF by the railway company, so they are very scarce.

Only railway buffs who know that expected such an enormous price. Mr Wright does not publish pre-sale estimates. Nor does he charge a buyer's premium. Seller's premium on the first pounds 1,000 is a modest 10 per cent (not the customary 15 per cent) and only 5 per cent thereafter. It sounds disconcertingly amateurish to the hardened speculator.

The previous price comparable with the pounds 15,100 for the York and Ainsty was pounds 9,200 for the Morpeth, another hunt nameplate, the previous year. Not a bad rate of appreciation (although most are as yet worth less than pounds 10,000). In the Thirties - but you will not wish to know this - you could have picked up nameplates ex-yard for five bob and in the early Sixties even King class nameplates cost a mere pounds 15. Fifty King class nameplates slung onto the back of a lorry would have made you a millionaire today.

King class? What's class? You will have to ask Mr Wright, or speak nicely to one of the enthusiasts at Myers Grove school. There are no textbooks, no price guides - although Mr Wright has logged the ownership of some 3,000 nameplates.

And when you get to Myers Grove school, expect to find fewer than half a dozen nameplates to bid for. They are almost never re-auctioned before the owner dies. No speculators, remember?

"I know people who would rather buy railwayana than bread," says Mr Wright. "They're a passion, not an investment. Look at the price the York and Ainsty made. There were 84 of those hunt plates on 42 engines. You'd think I'd be rung up by somebody wanting to sell at that price - but not a one. They're not selling".

There have been flurries of buying: prices trebled in 1978-9 and there was another rush in the late Eighties - the sort of blips speculators have learned to be wary of. What goes up must come down.

"But in 10 years' auctioneering, I've seen nothing but buoyancy. We've never had speculators. They don't understand nameplates. It's not an international market, so they're nervous. They're wrong, but that's how they feel. I'm glad. Speculators would be a disaster. Once they got involved, buying and selling every three years, I'd be in trouble with prices. I want nostalgic people, lovers of nameplates in their own right."

He's one - he bought his first nameplate for pounds 125 in 1971 (worth pounds 6,500 today) after being cajoled into watching an enthusiasts' preserved steam express roar through Sheffield. "I saw it come round the bend swaying on its frames and I was hooked." Ever seen an express sway on its frames? If you have, perhaps you should buy a nameplate and put it on your wall - and in your will. More nameplates circulating speculatively through auction means more nameplates and lower prices. You could end up derailing your own express train to riches.

Sheffield Railwayana Auctions, 43 Little Norton Lane, Sheffield S8 8GA (Tel/fax 0114-274 5085).

Auction of the Paul Edwards collection of railwayana and juvenilia, Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, today 11.30am (0860-921519).

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