The old ladies of Kensington

John Windsor returns to the days of pond-yacht racing

A beaten-up Thirties model racing yacht sold for a whopping pounds 690 at one of Phillips' down-market furniture sales in Bayswater in June. The sails and tangled rigging had come adrift and the mast refused to stand upright. The 47in-long plank-built vessel had been estimated at pounds 200-pounds 400.

With an eye on the rising decorative value of "pond yachts", as auctioneers call them, one vendor (probably not a model yacht connoisseur) is offering in Christie's South Kensington's November sale one half of a model yacht hull that he has meticulously sawn from stem to stern and mounted on a block, in imitation of shipbuilders' half block shipyard models.

Although he got it wrong - the 54in-long hull, dated 1960, will probably fetch pounds 200-pounds 300, less than half the pounds 700-pounds 900 it might be worth intact - his instinct was right. I predict that pre-Sixties model racing yachts, whose prices scarcely dipped during the recession and are now nudging pre-recession levels, are about to bump the Santa Marias and Cutty Sarks out of their berths in the bay windows of fashionable Nineties folk who find nostalgia in the sea and ships.

The antique market does not yet appreciate model racing yachts. Instead, this increasingly buoyant market is being swelled by fogeyish private buyers approaching middle age who want to sport their raffish Panama hats and navy-blue blazers at the yachting lake, as well as showing off their pretty boats at home.

At the turn of the century, model yacht racing was a serious business. The aristocracy, together with the neo-gentry - architects, designers - would race their yachts in pairs across the round pond in Kensington Gardens. Crusty old peers, too portly to run round the pond to turn their yachts, would appoint a coachman as mate, encouraging him with salty invective as he sprinted to the far side, wooden turning pole in hand. "Run, you bugger!"

Their language was more subdued when 500-600 crowded round the pond for big competitions organised by the Model Yacht Sailing Association (founded 1876) - there would be men in toppers and ladies in flowing dresses. Today, a mere 35 members (they never did elect a coachman) compete for the association's 18 trophies, one of them a silver cup worth up to pounds 20,000.

Not the sexiest of pursuits, you might think. Until you talk to the enthusiasts and it dawns upon you why boats are referred to as "she". There is a connoisseurship in assessing the "beat" (shape) of a hull that borders on prurience.

Charles Miller of Christie's South Kensington, enthusing over a gaff rigged pond yacht of 1935 with mahogany planked hull and self-steering gear that had fetched pounds 1,495 (estimate pounds 1,000-pounds 1,200) in his spring sale, says: "Worth every penny: it had the most beautifully curvaceous feminine- looking hull - a fine pointed bow and well gathered up towards the stern. Smooth clear lines such as those just cut through the water."

I encountered the same practical aesthetic at Phillips, where Bill Rose told me: "What looks right is right." The true connoisseur, it seems, sees through the eye of nature. "Look for soft curves," he advised, resorting to the nautical voluptuosity, "not hard angles, because nature doesn't have hard angles". He sold for a bargain pounds 440 at Phillips' rivercraft sale at Henley in July a splendid 47in-long late 19th century pond yacht with solid hull and a powerful spoon bow, though without sails. "A lovely hull: it would cut through the water without any bubbles."

At auction you can pay anything from pounds 143, the price at Phillips, Henley in July, for an ugly modern 81in-long giant made from GRP (a glass, resin and plastic compound) with hefty lead-weighted keel, to around pounds 4,000 for a shapely old lady with planked hull and a distinguished racing record.

The model yacht restorer Richard Howlett warns that modern racing yachts, the sort of lightweight, anorexic-looking models that cost up to pounds 3,500, can decline in value by a quarter each year as the class develops increasingly sophisticated gear. Strictly for trophy-hunters.

Suppose you choose not to compete at auction and chance your eye instead on that sleek but dusty model yacht languishing in your local junk shop. It could be, say, a pretty-looking early Marblehead, biggest of the four main racing classes. You might pay pounds 40 for it, even pounds 400. Mr Howlett's research and restoration might cost pounds 200-pounds 500. Then, like so many of Mr Howlett's customers, you will ask him: "What's it worth now?" He might say: "pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500 at auction." You will then appear thoughtful and say: "Of course, I'd never dream of selling it."

Richard Howlett, Vintage Yacht Group and Model Yacht Sailing Association, 0171-480 5288. Auctioneers that sell model racing yachts: Phillips, 0171- 629 6602; Christie's South Kensington, 0171-581 7611; Sotheby's, 0171- 493 8080; Bonhams, 0171-393 3900.

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