Money: Treasure in the toy chest

It's child's play making big money from those lost souls still in the attic, writes Faith Glasgow
Going through boxes of childhood toys still lurking in your parents' attic may not be an enticing prospect - there'll be all that dust, and the obligation to be ruthless about the remnants of your own youth - but the reality is that a trawl through the family toy box could be a surprisingly lucrative exercise.

The market for collectable toys is a dynamic one, driven primarily by nostalgia - and a new generation of collectors is on the hunt for the playthings of their childhood in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

And if you don't get there first, your parents might sell the stuff anyway: "Vendors now tend to be parents in their fifties or sixties, downsizing and emptying their houses," says Nigel Mynheer of the toy department at Christie's, the auctioneer.

Buyers, meanwhile, are younger: 30-55 years old.

"Many people actually start collecting after they have to clear out the family attic; initially they may not even realise what they have there is valuable, but they can't let it go," Mr Mynheer says.

The peak in the market is the 38-44 age bracket, who used to eat their tea in front of television programmes such as Batman, The Saint, The Avengers and Thunderbirds and now find themselves nostalgically looking out for the spin-off toys and games.

Foremost among these are the little high-quality, die-cast vehicles produced by Corgi. A first model of James Bond's Aston Martin, boxed and in mint condition, for instance, fetches around pounds 150, according to James Bridges of Sotheby's, while the Green Hornet's car (he was Spiderman's adversary, in case you're wondering) goes for pounds 300. Alternatively, you might pick up a Batmobile for around pounds 70-pounds 80.

"But it must be in the original box and have the little package labelled "secret instructions" and the bag of bullets with it, otherwise the price will be only about a third of that," says Mr Mynheer.

Indeed, the box is an integral part of the toy's value. "Boxed and mint" examples of models that were packaged in particularly fragile boxes, notably the Beatles' Yellow Submarine and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, fetch pounds 200- pounds 300, but only a paltry pounds 60-pounds 100 without the box.

Matchbox cars, although they have been collectables for 20 years or so, have also gained popularity over the last five years. Here, premiums are paid for rare colour variants.

"We have a red petrol tanker in the 20 May auction which will probably make around pounds 15, and a green version that is so unusual we expect it to go for pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000," says Mr Mynheer.

Also currently firing the memories of younger buyers are the battery- operated lithographed tinplate robots of the 1950s and 1960s. They were made in Japan for the US and British markets but many were not good quality; if you come across one that still works, therefore, it could be worth anything from pounds 150. The rarest models are sold for as much as pounds 20,000; a 1955 example was sold by Bonhams for pounds 1,955 in its March sale.

The rise in popularity among collectors of this mass-produced juvenilia has been at the expense of older toys' popularity. Mr Bridges points out that 10 years ago, the market was primarily in pre-1950s toys (tinplate cars and aircraft, model boats and trains) but prices have increased sharply, supply is tending to dry up and younger collectors have different interests.

Hornby trains, in particular, have seen a falling-off in demand in comparison with the rest of the toy market; you could pick up a whole 1950s boxed set for pounds 50, says Mr Mynheer.

Dolls are a rather different matter. "We auction a lot of pre-1930s wooden, wax and porcelain dolls, but not many post-Second World War ones," says Mr Bridges.

But there are exceptions: the Sasha dolls of the Sixties and Seventies were highly desirable and quite pricey when they first came out, and now fetch anything from pounds 100 to pounds 600 boxed and in mint condition (or half that unboxed).

Original Barbie, too, has enjoyed a renaissance, though it is nothing like as big a movement as in her native America (the internet hosts a number of US Barbie websites for true enthusiasts). In the UK, a No1 mint condition Barbie goes for pounds 1,500-pounds 2,000, according to Mr Bridges; but her accessories and outfits count for a great deal of that sum. A swimsuited Barbie, boxed, went for pounds 172 at a recent Bonhams auction in London, while her boyfriend Ken in evening dress went for pounds 40.

"Sindy [Barbie's British competitor] is also beginning to catch on a bit here, but we don't deal with them because they are not worth enough to handle individually and people don't generally want job lots," said Mr Bridges.

Doll fairs and dealers are a better bet: Doll Magazine is a good starting point for contacts and private sales through the small ads. What about the plastic collectables of the 1970s - the early Star Trek and Star Wars memorabilia?

"They're very common unboxed, but very rare boxed because the box had to be broken to get the toy out," says Mr Bridges. "Often the rarity actually lies in the packaging design itself - it might have been done for a particular retailer."

He gives the example of an R2D2 robot that would cost around pounds 5 unboxed but as much as pounds 50 in its original box.

In the face of fickle fashion, one enduring winner is the teddy bear. Its popularity has burgeoned in the last 10 years, says Ian Pout, who runs a dedicated shop called Teddy Bears in Witney, Oxfordshire.

"To be collectable, a bear ought to be made of mohair, not synthetic fibre, and be jointed," he observes. "Up to 1955-60, which is really the cut-off date for collectors, most were stuffed with kapok or wool and had glass eyes."

Value is added by unusual colour (most are honey-coloured), an endearing expression, good condition and some evidence of the bear's history - a photo of its early days goes down well.

Also important is the label of a good manufacturer - Chad Valley, Merrythought and Chiltern were big names in Fifties Britain, but the German firm Steiff produced the best (look for the trademark button in the ear).

Mr Pout reckons British Fifties bears in good condition cost pounds 100-pounds 300, but a Steiff bear can command up to pounds 500.

So don't sling out the props of your childhood without a second glance.

They could be worth more than you ever imagined - if you find you can bear to let them go, that is....

n For quotes and further information, telephone: Sotheby's 0171-293 5000; Christie's, 0171-581 7611; Bonhams, 0171- 393 3900; Teddy Bears of Witney, 01993 702616; Doll Magazine, 01403 711511,


Sample prices achieved at Bonhams toy auctions in 1998:

n Corgi 261 James Bond Aston Martin DB5 pounds 220

n Collection of Corgi and Dinky toys (including Batmobile, Monkeemobile, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Saint's Volvo) pounds 200

n Matchbox Major and accessories (1950s-1960s) pounds 150

n Chiltern teddy bear, c1950 pounds 140

n Two Sasha dolls in cylinder boxes pounds 750

n Boxed Sindy dolls and accessories pounds 110

n Action Men and accessories pounds 170