Did you buy a famous artist's work? Answers on a postcard

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A sketch of Tony Blair as the "zombie of death" hangs beside a portrait of John Peel and pop art made from horsehair and pom-poms. But which is a Mario Testino or a Damien Hirst?

A sketch of Tony Blair as the "zombie of death" hangs beside a portrait of John Peel and pop art made from horsehair and pom-poms. But which is a Mario Testino or a Damien Hirst?

Art enthusiasts hoping to apply their skills - or luck - to selecting the works of established artists from an assortment of 2,100 postcards can participate in the annual guessing game at the Royal College of Art's "Secret 2004" sale.

Leading contemporary artists have produced unique, postcard-sized works which will go on sale beside the creations of aspiring RCA students and graduates. But the purchaser will know whose artwork they have bought only after they have paid the £35 for a postcard and seen the signature on the back.

The collection is open from tomorrow, and will be sold on 26 and 27 November, but prospective buyers will be queuing early. For the 11th annual fundraising sale, there will be first-time contributions from the photographers Mario Testino and Richard Billingham, the artist Bill Viola, and a crop of designers including Eley Kishimoto and Hussein Chalayan, and the former Blur guitarist, Graham Coxon.

Hirst and Tracey Emin, who regularly submit their work, have several pieces this year. Although their respective styles have been deemed distinctive, with signature themes such as Hirst's pharmaceutical pills, experts claim they will be less obvious this time.

Julian Opie, Sir Peter Blake, Ken Loach, Sir Terence Conran, James Dyson, Phoebe Philo and the Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry will also be among the 1,000 contributors. The works range from pencil drawings, oils, watercolours, photography and prints as well as knitted and embroidered images, 3-D cards made from expanding foam, polystyrene and glitter.

Sophie Brown, the collection's curator, said it was impossible to guess the artist behind the work because some had cleverly disguised their styles. "We recommend that people choose one they genuinely like rather than trying to recognise the famous ones, which is more of a bonus. Sometimes, artists will put their signature marks on the piece, such as the Tracey Emin last year which was a characteristic pencil sketch but this is not always the case. There are also students who imitate the style of famous artists quite well."

Professor Glynn Williams, head of fine art at the RCA, said buying a postcard by an unknown young artist could be as thrilling as purchasing one by an established name. "If you turn your postcard over to discover it's a superstar, great, but if you turn it over to discover it's not, then hold your breath; this may be the superstar of tomorrow. After all, our alumni makes up a lot of the artists of stature at the moment. Tracey Emin was once a student at the RCA."

The money raised will go to RCA fine art students awards which help students with bursaries and grants. RCA Secret has raised nearly £600,000 so far.

Since the first sale in 1994, when the cards cost £25, competition has grown among purchasers, which means some do hours of homework before they arrive and the most keen queue for up to six days to get in first. Most of the artists send more than one postcard for an eclectic collection of artistic cultures and styles.

'Told it was a Hirst, I was blown away'

Austin Clarke was convinced he was too far back in the queue at the RCA to pick up a postcard by a leading contemporary artist, at the "Secret 2002" sale. As 17th in the queue, some of his favourite postcards had already gone.

So Mr Clarke, 54, a mechanical engineer from Northern Ireland, paid £35 for a picture of an Anadin bottle and pills, which his wife had dismissed as the work of an aspiring artist. He was delighted when the RCA sales assistant revealed he had purchased an original Damien Hirst.

"When I was told it was a Hirst, I was blown away," Mr Clarke said. "It was absolutely unbelievable. My wife and I had seen it on the internet and she was convinced it was not a Hirst because it was too obvious."

Before the sale, he had spent a night sleeping on the floor outside the college, with only a polythene bag to protect him from the rain.

"I didn't mind that," he said. "There was a real camaraderie in the queue."

Last year, he camped out by the London venue five days before the sale and was first in line, scooping a Julian Opie postcard of a woman in a bikini, as well as a piece by Mary Fedden and the Italian artist, Mimmo Paladino.

"I knew Julian Opie's work and I knew the postcards I was going for. I developed an interest for contemporary art about 10 years ago."

His postcards have been framed and hang in "special spots" in the hallway of his home; and he says he would not dream of selling them.