Personal Finance: Big boy' toys ready to go at full steam

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The Independent Online
The handful of investors who bought "finescale" locomotives and put them in their bank vault have got it right. By this time next year, prices will have soared for these jewel-like, individually crafted models, which can take up to 3,500 hours to make, but have been selling at auction for less than half their price off the workbench. John Windsor takes us on a journey.

The word "finescale" may not ring many bells. But if you have ever watched films such as Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes or the original Murder on the Orient Express, you have probably been fooled by the realism of miniature finescale locomotives filmed hurtling into collisions or explosions.

The last chance to buy finescale locomotives before Christie's South Kensington's marketing machine puts its weight behind one of the last genuinely underpriced collectables, is at its Trains Galore sale on Monday (2pm), when seven finescales - electrically powered, about 18ins long, scaled 7mm to the foot - will be on offer at estimates ranging from pounds 500- pounds 700 to pounds 1,600-pounds 1,800.

If those estimates sound high, compare them with the prices fetched by pre-war tinplate trains factory-made by the German company Marklin. They have fetched up to pounds 42,000 - an example of how boyhood nostalgia coupled with the wealth of middle-age can be a more powerful market driver than appreciation of true craftsmanship.

Finescale is not kids' stuff. The tiny exhibition-standard locomotives, exact to the last rivet, carry no childhood memories. They are the product of a peculiarly British tradition of spare-time, garden-shed craftsmanship founded by professional engineers in the inter-war years. Tom Rose, South Kensington's models specialist, says: "They are disgracefully underpriced and have been for years. It appals me that these gems can sell for as little as 50p for every hour's work that went into them."

Mr Rose plans to put them before a more appreciative and wealthier audience. In next week's sale you will not find any models by the Faberge of finescale, Stanley Beeson, who died aged 82 in 1990. He is holding out three Beesons until 8 April, when finescale models will be presented for the first time in South Kensington 's annual auction of "exceptional scientific and engineering works of art, instruments and models".

The first such sale was held in London last April, after the 48 lots had been put on show in Park Avenue, New York. The Americans marvelled, and on the day of the sale, the telephone lines between London and the States hummed. The sale raised a block-busting pounds 1.14m.

Now, rich Americans will be offered British finescale locomotives as a new collectable. A Beeson model of Southern Railway's King's Wimbledon, the only Schools class locomotive among the 1,500 he made, will be on offer at an estimated pounds 6,000-pounds 8,000, matching the record price for a Beeson of pounds 7,150. This model, commissioned in 1935 by a commercial model railway manufacturer, was upgraded by Beeson in the Sixties from the less meticulous coarsescale standard. Its late owner was so impressed that he said, "I'm not running that" and put it in a glass case.

Two other Beesons in the April sale, an LMS "Black Five" passenger-freight locomotive and an LMS 080 freight, will be estimated at around pounds 5,000 and pounds 3,000. For comparison, the four Beesons in last December's "Trains Galore" sale fetched pounds 4,025 (estimate pounds 900-pounds 1,200), pounds 2,530 (est pounds 1,500- pounds 2,000), pounds 2,300 (pounds 1,600-pounds 1,800) and pounds 1,150 (pounds 900-pounds 1,200).

Three American collectors have begun competing for Beesons against the half-dozen serious British finescale collectors at South Kensington's sales. But they have been seen off by Britain's biggest Beeson buyer, Neil Corner, owner of a contract furniture business in Coverdale, Yorkshire, whose 75ft long finescale layout, the world's biggest, has more than 100 locomotives, including more than 30 by Beeson. Mr Corner owns the intricate engineering machinery that Beeson made and used, some of which has yet to yield its secrets.

Fewer than 300 Beeson locos survive - more because of ignorance and neglect than the crashes that the film makers put them through. During the last 20 years of his life, he became so obsessed with modelling to watchmakers' standards that fewer than 30 locos left his workshop near Ringwood, Hampshire. His commissions were always late. Recognise his work by its sharp edges, exquisite machining of tiny knobs, levers and tools, and by his distinctive lacquer - applied over paintwork bathed in thinner when barely dry.

Finescale is as much an art as a craft and there is rivalrous disagreement among makers about how original drawings of locomotives should be interpreted. In Beeson's work there is a faint element of caricature - if small parts such as cab levers seemed in danger of disappearing when reduced to scale, he scaled them up slightly, so that they would be noticed. Another maker, Bernard Miller, became famous for painting locomotive boilers as if discoloured by heat.

Vic Green, a 67-year-old professional model-maker of Reading, who has made 40 finescale locomotives, says he is not in awe of Beeson because he did not follow original drawings accurately. Mr Green has two main clients, one British and the other a Miami businessman who this year arrived unexpectedly on his doorstep, eager to buy. He is making two models for each of them - a GWR King loco at pounds 13,000 and a GWR Star at pounds 12,000.

If you have no eye for detail or remain overwhelmed by nostalgia, note that among factory-produced model trains, prices for the high-quality rich kids' Bassett Lowke have put on a spurt while the rise in Hornby prices levelled out around 1992. It was Bassett Lowke that commissioned Beeson to make the King's Wimbledon locomotive in 1935 - a mark of their eye for superior workmanship.

Hornby's Princess Elizabeth locomotive of 1937-40 (not to be confused with later, plastic models) levelled at pounds 2,000 at auction in 1992, whereas Bassett Lowke's comparable Princess Elizabeth, which was selling for pounds 1,500 at the time, now commands a hefty pounds 3,000. The common Bassett Lowke pre- war classic Flying Scotsman has also doubled in value, to pounds 800.

South Kensington's tinplate toys specialist, Hugo Marsh, puts it down to the formation of the Bassett Lowke Society six years ago and the subsequent maturation of the market - avid collectors who have got all the Hornby models have now turned to the much scarcer, finer Bassett Lowke.

Bob Burgess, the 43-year-old building engineer who founded the Bassett Lowke Society, is typical of the brand's new, young collectors. He was brought up not on expensive Bassett Lowke but on cheap Triang 00 gauge. He reports that speculators have entered the Bassett Lowke market: "They come out of the woodwork when City bonuses are distributed." But he reckons the supply of Bassett Lowke is so small that the market could withstand dumping for profit.

Mr Burgess has enrolled 395 members compared with the Hornby Railway Collectors' Association's 3,000. The Association's chairman, John Kitchen, says he has noticed a recent perk in post-war Hornby prices at the Association's bring and buy sales - where younger faces are appearing. It is prices for pre-war Hornby that are sagging - because the children in whom they inspired nostalgia are dying off.

Christie's South Kensington's auction, `Trains Galore and Marklin Toys and Trains', Monday (2pm) and Tuesday (10.30am - inquiries 0171-581 7611). Hornby Railway Collectors' Association: membership secretary Bob Field (0115-962 5693). Bassett Lowke Society: membership secretary: Alan Elliott, Greystones, Lower Kingsbury, Milbourne Port, Dorset DT9 5ED.