Those obscure objects of desire: John Windsor hunts down some of the few truly undiscovered collectables

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Collectors of undiscovered collectables are a rare breed. They are also a secretive lot, forming arcane societies with bizarre rites.

Consider, for instance, the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts, whose obscure objects of desire include Matthew Boulton originals that change hands for up to pounds 2,000. It has a membership limited to 50. Its president, called 'the Right', entertains all 50 to dinner annually, so aspirants to the office need to be well-heeled. On such occasions, members are forbidden to leave the table until the Master of the Punch has filled the punch bowl with his own concoction as many times as he chooses.

And all this from people who collect that mundane household implement, the corkscrew. What future might we expect for collectables whose obscure names convey nothing? The argyle, for instance, at an educated guess might be a patent Edwardian waterproof cape favoured by grouse shooters. It is, in fact, a silver gravy warmer with hot water jacket - popular in Georgian and Regency periods, said to have been invented by the fourth Duke of Argyll.

The casolette, which sounds as if it might be a domed, heat-resistant stew dish, is a small urn with perforated bowl for burning sweet-smelling pastilles, which has its origins in the 17th century. Is a chatelaine a handbag-size silver- handled ladies' whip? No, not quite; it is a First World War chain girdle, usually silver, worn by the lady of the house, from which are suspended scissors, button hooks, bodkins, stamp boxes, etc.

The muffineer must be a dead cert for a flat wire cage used for toasting muffins against gas fires? No, rather it is a silver miniature version of the sugar caster, containing spices, such as grated cinnamon, for sprinkling on muffins.

These curios and many more appeared in Undiscovered Antiques, a guidebook by Peter Whittington that was published about 20 years ago. This book was one of the first attempts to chart the direction of an increasingly buoyant private collectors' market.

With the hindsight of two decades, less than a dozen of the book's 200 tips can be rated as hits. Since its publication, a new generation of collectors has turned to pop.

Traditional antiques and bric-a- brac such as lithophanes (thin translucent porcelain plaques, popular from 1830 to 1900 as decorative panels in food warmers and lamps) or standishes (ink-stands, especially Georgian desk stands), are scorned in favour of more up- to-date, colourful talking-points: souvenirs of social change, landmarks in industrial design. The pounds 68,200 paid for a Charles Rennie Mackintosh Nouveau Art poster at Christie's South Kensington last week - a record for a British poster - typifies the trend.

When Christie's South Kensington says collectables it means, besides posters, decorative arts as a whole, especially art deco ceramics, pop and film memorabilia, animation art, book cover and cartoon art - none thought worthy of a second glance 20 years ago.

Among the book's bulls' eyes were alphabet plates and mugs, now part of a booming market for nostalgic nurseryware whose auction prices have surged only in the last year or so. Four Mabel Lucie Attwell mugs fetched pounds 330 at a Christie's South Kensington decorative arts sales last March.

Fountain pens, another good prediction by the book, are now an accepted 'power accessory' but it is hard to imagine they were ever undiscovered, even in 1972. Their first London auction took place in 1980, but the market did not take off until the brash sign-your-contract-with-a-Mont-Blanc days of 1988. A Swiss Twenties gold- plated Mont Blanc can fetch pounds 600- pounds 800 at auction.

Other collectables now thoroughly discovered include biscuit tins, slot machines, costumes, tools and typewriters.

In the past six months, no fewer than 1,224 lots of biscuit tins have clanked their way through Britain's auction houses; a single- owner collection at Bonhams fetched pounds 30,000 with 6 per cent unsold in October (an Edwardian tin in the shape of an ocean liner made pounds 880).

Slot machines became fashionable playthings among successful young City types in the late Eighties: wall-mounted 'All-wins' with up to 24 ball cups and a spiral ball chute have fetched pounds 600 at auction. Both private buyers and museums are snapping up old costumes: Christie's South Kensington pioneered such sales 25 years ago. Demand is strong for 18th- century pieces: a ball gown can top pounds 10,000. So can a Swedish Malling-Hansen typewriter of the 1870s.

Other successful tips, besides corkscrews, were aeronautica, apprentice pieces, boots and shoes, can openers, coal-hole covers, dentures (medical professionals have started collecting scientific instruments), fire insurance marks, gypsy wagons, military chests, music covers, theatre playbills, travelling furniture, truncheons. All now have lively markets.

But if you are looking for zarfs, you are likely to be disappointed, at least at auction. Only two lots described as zarfs - strictly speaking enamelled or gilded holders for handleless Turkish coffee cups - appeared at auction in the past six months, and they turned out to be Turkish coffee pots.

But in the same period, chatelaine enthusiasts would have been rewarded by 343 finds, argyle admirers had a choice of 73 and casolette fanciers 61. There were 150 andirons, 51 lithophanes and 61 standishes - sufficient choice to make collecting possible. But during the same period nothing called a muffineer appeared at auction. Have cunning muffineer collectors invented a different, even more obscure name?

One of the biggest misses of Undiscovered Antiques was printed ephemera (with the exception of theatre playbills), despite the appearance in 1962 of John Lewis's ground-breaking guidebook, Printed Ephemera, which coined the term. Printed ephemera is one of today's most popular collectables. Museums vie with private collectors and prices are being pushed up. A Georgian trade card can be worth more than pounds 1,000.

The omission shows that collectors should keep an eye open for similar ground-breaking publications. John Kobal's The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait, published in 1980, made Hollywood glamour photography a respectable collectable. Plastics, gaming machines, writing implements and fishing tackle have all been popularised by landmark publications. Only writing implements (now a narrow specialists' market) were tipped by Undiscovered Antiques.

Among its most deservedly and lastingly undiscovered citations are bidets, cake stands, coat hangers, cork pictures, curled paper work, frying pans, meat cleavers, pyrography (burnt designs on wood or leather), sand buckets, sand pictures, string boxes, watch stands and wooden spoons.

But then, undiscovered collectables are truly one of life's great mysteries. The Most Distinguished Cabal of Bidet Buffs - does it exist? Other obscure obsessions? Write and tell us.

Undiscovered Antiques by Peter Whittington (Garnstone Press, 1972). Auction database research by Thesaurus (071-487 3401).

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