Fishing lines: Laurels of a real Hardy

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Back in 1886, a small firm of gunsmiths and cutlery makers turned its hand to making fishing reels. One of Hardy Brothers' first products was modestly called the Perfect. It was to become the most famous reel of all - and a well-named one as far as Graham Turner is concerned.

Last week, a brass reel no bigger than those free soaps you get at swish hotels sold at auction for pounds 17,000, a world record for an item of tackle. Turner, who sold the reel, is said to have bought it at auction a couple of years ago for pounds 4,400. After the sale, at Angling Auctions in Hammersmith, west London, Turner said: "That's not expensive. It's worth whatever anyone will pay for it because of its rarity."

The reel, which cost 25 shillings when it was first made, was documented as one of only two known examples. The other was sold privately earlier this year for pounds 10,000. But it is worth having a trawl through your attic just to see if grandad has left one in an old creel. John Stephenson, who runs The Tackle Exchange in Stoke, believes there are more of them around. "I can't see Hardy's making just one or two reels and then cataloguing them."

But what is it that makes a chunk of brass worth more than most people's cars? Well, the name Hardy certainly helps. The company was founded in Alnwick, Northumberland, in 1872 and soon had a flourishing business supplying the local gentry with sporting goods. But it found the best profit was in fishing rods, and specifically a new material called split cane, where bamboo was split into triangular sections and glued together.

It made sense to tack on reels as well. The first mention of reels in its catalogues was 1886, but these were probably bought in. They certainly weren't made by Hardy's. Then a third brother, Forster, joined the firm. He was an engineer and took charge of the reels department, designing and patenting a product which used ball bearings to make the drum run more smoothly. The reel, the aforementioned Perfect, has been made in various combinations, apart from a 10-year gap in the late 1960s, until the present day.

"To collectors, the appeal of Hardy reels is that they have always been seen as being the best, like collecting Rolexes or Rolls-Royces," says Stephenson, who, incidentally, is contrary enough to collect everything but Hardy tackle. "They never made anything that was less than high quality. But the other appeal is that everything is well documented. It's easy to identify Hardy equipment because there are books about it. It's much harder if, like me, you collect some obscure maker in Argentina."

However, the picture isn't perfect, even for Hardy collectors. Over the past century, the company made a lot of prototypes. It often developed reels and put them into production before they appeared in catalogues. When drawings did appear, they were often of the prototypes and not of the full production version. The official launch of the Perfect was in 1891, though it was being made and sold in 1890.

Having thoroughly confused you, here's what to look for when you're scrabbling around in old cupboards. If you find a small, all-brass reel with a nickel silver line guard, a fat single handle made of ivory, Hardy's name and their logo of a hand holding a rod, you can stop chewing your nails about the cost of new tyres. Don't worry if the reel has a few scratches. The one sold last week had a cracked handle. Just think what a perfect Perfect would be worth.