Win on the swings and roundabouts

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All the fun of the fair, the circus and the amusement arcade is going under the hammer. At the age of 24, auctioneer Steve Hunt, who bought his first fairground ride at the age of 14, has cornered the lion's share of the auction market in antique amusements.

An Edwardian hand-cranked roundabout with 12 carved wooden horses in original paint, suspended on brass barley-twist rods, fetched pounds 6,000 last year at one of his quarterly auctions of fairground art and slot machines. A circus trapeze safety net made pounds 25, a Thirties Mills one-armed bandit pounds 700 - and ten tons of mixed elephant and horse manure a fiver. (The pile had been rotting nicely since Gerry Cottle sold the elephants four years ago, but the lone bidder has yet to carry off his scoop).

Fairground art - whose brightly painted carved animals and gold rococo scrollwork makes it one of the most robust genres of Victorian popular art - is getting scarcer and scarcer. Showmen's yards, where dismantled roundabouts and swingboats were stored for the winter then finally abandoned, have been plundered by dealers, says Mr Hunt. "There are no great finds left," he reckons.

Only 50 of the 400 lots at his next quarterly sale on Sunday 1 December at 1pm at the Colville School at Cherry Hinton, Cambridgeshire, are fairground art, the rest mostly amusement machines. Until this year he could expect double that number of fairground pieces. Among the few on offer are five roundabout animals carved in the Forties or Fifties - including a pig, a cockerel and a horse, expected to fetch pounds 600-pounds 700 each.

Last year saw the 18th and final auction of carved fairground animals and carousel art at Brillscote Farm, in Wiltshire. Before going under the hammer, the stock used to earn its keep on hire to film studios. Grierson Gower, co-founder of Brillscote Farm Auctions, said the business rate, levied on showmen's yards and even parked fairground wagons, had been the last straw.

"There was nowhere else for the rides to be stored. Now they're practically all gone."

You might think that nostalgia would drive collectors and dealers to compete hotly for the diminishing supply of fairground art. Hardly.

Collectors and dealers at Mr Hunt's auctions do not appear eager to drive up prices. They are niggardly bidders. They eye each other like hawks and have developed the habit - infuriating to auctioneers - of allowing goods to go unsold then crowding to the auctioneer's rostrum to broach after-sale deals at low prices.

A 1907 fairground Cake Walk (jiggling platform), one of only five left, was haggled over for three months after a sale last year before changing hands at pounds 30,000.

Pub outfitters do occasionally boost bidding. A ghost train's Bride of Dracula in coffin, in working order with sound effects, fetched pounds 510. and will no doubt recoup the outlay by reminding customers to order Bloody Marys. A two-headed calf, one of several taxidermic freaks, made pounds 210.

Despite the finicky bidding, the quarterly auctions of Mr Hunt's Antique Amusement Company are the biggest in Europe - big enough to get him barred from the village hall at Stow-cum-Quy, Cambridgeshire, where his pounds 5 entrance fee (admits two, free catalogue) was considered exorbitant.

"These are serious auctions," he retorts, "not occasions for locals to drink tea".

His own private collection is the talk of the trade. At one of his own auctions last year, he put in the winning bid of pounds 4,000 for an 1895 Gavioli organ, once the centrepiece of a galloper roundabout.

The set of six Edwardian solid oak adult swing-boats with unique brass hanging rods was almost unnoticed in an auction in Norfolk, carelessly catalogued as "child's swing boat". Having paid pounds 510 for it and restored it, Mr Hunt says he would not be parted from it at any price.

He tours his slot machines in a trailer pulled by a Land Rover. Punters pay pounds 1 for 20 old pennies. It does not matter much if they nick a few: replacements cost only pounds 30 per 1,000 in the trade.

The 1890-model Winchester repeater rifles in his shooting gallery fire live ammunition. It was not the regulation of the supply of live ammunition in the Sixties that led showmen to switch to air rifles, he says, but the fact that they suspected the taxman had access to ammo suppliers' receipts, revealing how much fairground folk had bought from them.

Then there is Mr Hunt's temperamental candy floss machine. Bought for pounds 1,000 it promised big profits from spun sugar on a stick costing only 4p a go to make and selling for 50p. But the spinning drum that throws molten sugar through a wire mesh demands skilful manipulation. At first, in Mr Hunt's inexperienced hands, it went out of control, draping the walls of his parents' kitchen with sticky pink cobwebs.

His most cherished relic is the only surviving fragment of William Taylor's Bioscope, or travelling cinema, of 1903-4 - a panel from its 100ft illuminated frontage, with carved face and sunburst, dotted with light-bulb sockets. He bought it at one of his own auctions. "I love this," he says: "In fact I like everything that's over-the-top, opulent".

Besides regular auctions, he publishes the monthly Antiques Amusements Magazine. It carries advertisements such as: "Help! Does anybody know where I can get a set of reel strips for a Mills bandit?" and "It pays to buy Baker's de-crapinated pennies. The hand-sorted, premium selected pennies in Baker's mixture work our far cheaper than other bags of corroded crap."

Mr Hunt now wants to buy a seaside pier - the only one of three lifetime ambitions still unfulfilled. The other two were to own an amusement arcade and a fair. He covets the west pier in Brighton, which closed 20 years ago and lost its middle section in storms in 1987. It would cost him a lot of pennies to put right: around two billion.

Steve Hunt, Antique Amusement Co, (01223-813041 or 0850-813712). Brillscote Farm Auctions shop 21a Camden Passage, London N1 (0171-359-2597), warehouse 127 Pancras Road, London NW1 (0171-387 6039).

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