In Focus

Premium Bonds: inside the world of 007 collectors

A group of James Bond fans across the country are rifling through car boots and sniping on eBay auctions to find the franchise’s most coveted memorabilia. Now, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson poised to take the role, a space on the shelf for new merchandise awaits. Kyle MacNeill speaks to the espionage enthusiasts

Sunday 26 May 2024 06:00 BST
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Across the UK is a burgeoning cottage industry dealing in all things related to Ian Fleming’s suited and booted, martini-sipping creation
Across the UK is a burgeoning cottage industry dealing in all things related to Ian Fleming’s suited and booted, martini-sipping creation (Peter Tuite/Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

The exact coordinates are, of course, top secret. But somewhere in Greater Manchester, on an unassuming suburban street, I’m standing outside a shuttered lock-up. Nick Bennett, 57, is next to me, armed with a jangling ring of keys to rival that of any school caretaker. He makes me promise not to share this location. I assure him I’m not a double agent. As the door is heaved open and we enter the premises, I understand why. Each room of the locked-and-loaded house, a rough-around-the-edges HMO, is stacked floor to ceiling with objects worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. It’s a hoarders paradise, filled to the max with merchandise. Every single item is related not to Bennett, but another man: James Bond.

Created in 1953 by writer Ian Fleming, the MI6 agent has featured in 12 original novels and 27 films, the latter of which have made a killing (£17.1bn) at the box office. But the gun-toting, martini-drinking, bullet-dodging spy of Ian Fleming’s imagination wasn’t always the object of Bennett’s obsession. “I used to collect things to do with The Professionals TV series. There were guns and cars and whatever but there wasn’t that much,” says Bennett, propped up next to a stash of Bond gadgets, from replica golden guns to pristinely-presented watches. Realising that he had more in his collection than the author of The Professionals collecting guide, Bennett grew bored of the show and moved onto the Gremlins series, soon maxing out everything linked to the impish monsters.

It was in 1995, after Pierce Brosnan took on the role of 007 for GoldenEye, that Bennett made Fleming’s franchise his focus and started his own Bond toy businesses, touting figurines and collectables. Since then, he’s amassed more than 18,000 pieces of James Bond memorabilia, including, most impressively, a speedboat used to promote Live and Let Die. Sadly, the vessel is nowhere to be seen today. “It’s on a friend’s farm. It’s seen better days. He’s got bits of an aeroplane from Quantum of Solace there too,” he says.

Sean Connery with Claudine Auger and Adolfo Celi in ‘Thunderball’, the film that kickstarted Bond merchandising
Sean Connery with Claudine Auger and Adolfo Celi in ‘Thunderball’, the film that kickstarted Bond merchandising (Getty)

Bennett has held the Guinness World Record for the largest James Bond collection since 2014; just a fraction is on display in this particular cache but still, it’s brimming with rolled-up posters, box-fresh figurines, plastic attache cases, trench coats, golden nail polish, limited edition cans of John Smiths x James Bond beer, plus a pinball machine from Japan. It’s set to fetch at least £250,000 at auction – nothing compared to what Bond wins at the table in Casino Royale but a pretty handsome payday nonetheless.

Bennett was never alone in his mission to become the biggest Bond collector. Across the UK, there exists an entire community of collectors dedicated to 007, rifling through archives, and sniping on eBay auctions hoping to strike gold. Many share their literal spyware on Bennett’s Facebook group, where thousands of fans bond over their shared infatuation with Bond memorabilia. Many of them also attend conventions, events and meet-ups, all celebrating the dapper, devil-may-care, do-or-die spy.

Bond collecting first gained popularity in the 1960s. “It was during the release of Thunderball (1965), the fourth James Bond film, that the merchandising of the Bond character really kicked into overdrive,” says Graham Rye, who has been running 007 Magazine since 1979. “At that time, the majority of the merchandise was aimed at children, with toy cars, cap guns, rubber suction spearguns, and just about anything else you could imagine that would take the James Bond 007 logo emblazoned on it somewhere,” he says, quoting a Sunday Mirror article that predicted manufacturers would make £18m in 1965 from promotional items.

Roger Moore in ‘Live and Let Die’ (1973): ‘Men want to be Bond whereas women want to be with Bond’
Roger Moore in ‘Live and Let Die’ (1973): ‘Men want to be Bond whereas women want to be with Bond’ (Getty)

The golden age didn’t last long. “It slowly spiralled down over successive decades,” Rye says. Bennett, too, thinks that the original toys made in the Sixties were better quality, lamenting the more “generic” items released today. But thanks to the pandemic, which saw lots of us take up new hobbies, the rise of the 12+ toy-buying “kidult”, and the buzz surrounding Daniel Craig’s potential successor, a new collective of James Bond collectors is emerging. Fan club 007GB, formed just two years ago, has already signed up hundreds of members and raised tens of thousands of pounds for charity through swanky Bond-themed soirees.

But why are people so obsessed with the replica items of a fictional man? For Rye, there’s no one answer. “People become Bond collectors for a variety of reasons, each driven by unique motivations and psychological factors. The allure lies in its blend of nostalgia, cultural significance, investment potential, and the thrill of acquiring something that may have been actually used in a James Bond film – possibly even by James Bond himself!” he says.

During lockdown, Bond enthusiast Peter Tuite started making his own replicas of film gadgets and gizmos
During lockdown, Bond enthusiast Peter Tuite started making his own replicas of film gadgets and gizmos (Peter Tuite)

After all, for many people, Bond is who they endeavour to be, a role model of sorts. “He’s more than just a fictional character; he’s a cultural icon. His impeccable style, wit and daring adventures resonate with fans of all ages and both sexes worldwide,” Rye explains. It’s why you can smell like Bond thanks to 007 fragrances, drive like Bond thanks to the Aston Martin DB5, or even have sex like Bond thanks to themed condoms. Unsurprisingly, almost all Bond collectors are men. While the franchise aims to reach a broader target market, it still mainly appeals to men who aspire to be the undercover agent – or at least replicate his debonair ways.

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There are, in fact, some Bond Girls in the collecting community. “I have a dedicated room full of figures, cars, board games, books and much, much more, ranging from the Connery period to the present day,” says Victoria Hodges, founder of The Bond Room Unlocked and VIP manager at 007GB. “I don’t know any other female collectors like myself. Most other female fans I know like to immerse themselves in the Bond lifestyle, drinking Martinis, or visiting exotic Bond locations,” she says, on her way to a Bond book signing. “I do think females see Bond differently to male fans. Men want to be Bond whereas women want to be with Bond. There is just something incredibly sexy about the spy world.”

For others in the community, Bond is beside the point. “Sometimes collecting can just be a checklist. You get a Corgi car, then you get another one, then you get another one,” Bennett says. Personally, he enjoys the items he collects. “It’s kind of weird to me. I actually do like the objects I buy,” he says, showing off gizmos and guns from the Sixties, an entire motorcade of miniature cars, a hanger of military uniforms used in Skyfall, and a selection of figurines he believes are worthy of being framed.

Among the Bond items Peter Tuite has replicated is the safecracker from Roger Moore’s ‘Moonraker’, 1979
Among the Bond items Peter Tuite has replicated is the safecracker from Roger Moore’s ‘Moonraker’, 1979 (Peter Tuite)

Some Bond collectors take it further and make their own replicas. They might not have a licence to sell but they do it for their own thrills. “Replicas are collector’s items but limited to the few who can afford them, so during lockdown I started making my own,” says Peter Tuite, explaining how the advent of 3D printing and social media fuelled the fire. He’s already recreated the hairbrush transmitter from Live and Let Die, the safecracker from Moonraker, and the garotte watch featured in From Russia with Love. He’s planning to go bigger. “Believe it not, I have plans for Little Nellie [the aircraft featured in You Only Live Twice], but it might be a step too far,” he jokes.

Whether or not they’re reproducing life-sized rotorcrafts, all Bond collectors are drawn to the sheer scale of the franchise. “It’s absolutely massive. There are 27 films over 60 years. In movie posters alone, there are probably 4,000 to 5,000 official different designs that have been printed. Every area you go into is endless,” Bennett says. This vastness is what attracted him in the first place. “Give me a subject and I will collect it. So, I collected lots and lots of things until I landed on Bond because the scope was huge. That set me to carry on forever,” he says. That said, Bennett has other plans.

I don’t want to sit around talking endlessly about the nuances of toys, collectibles and the films

Nick Bennett, holder of the Guinness World Record for the largest James Bond collection since 2014

He has actually bitten the bullet and begun to sell his collection, auctioning off lots through Omega Auctions. “I don’t want to die with it. There’s no point in that,” he says. Is he worried about selling off his prized possessions? “Absolutely. Your balls are on the line, with... a crossbow pointed at them!” He points to a poster of For Your Eyes Only featuring a bow-wielding Melina. “When that gavel goes down, you’re out of control.” His decision to part ways with his collection separates Bennett from other collectors. Like Bond, he leads something of a double life; he doesn’t have any Bond memorabilia at home, isn’t keen on the new films, and doesn’t get involved in many community events. “I don’t want to sit around talking endlessly about the nuances of toys, collectibles and the films,” he says.

The thousands of items he’s put up for sale will likely open the market up to new and younger collectors, loading up the shelves of other Bond enthusiasts. Interest will also be triggered by the imminent announcement of a new 007. As ever it’s all been very cloak-and-dagger, but rumour has it that Marvel star Aaron Taylor-Johnson is taking up the tux.

“There’s guaranteed to be a new selection of bank account-emptying products to please the plethora of Bond enthusiasts waiting like greyhounds in the slips for their next fix,” Rye predicts. Hodges agrees. “I’m sure more fans will jump onto the spy train and embrace Bond. I hope new memorabilia will be issued to reflect this because collectors are always wanting to find that new piece,” he says.

This is true of Bennet, too; although he’s started selling off his collection, his obsession hasn’t died out yet. When he shows me the non-Bond-themed toys he’s after on eBay, I spy countless 007 items still on his watch list. “Every day, I trawl through thousands of things, to see if there’s anything interesting. I’ve got the disease,” he admits with a smile. Even though he’s selling, he’s still buying, too.

As I head back home (on the Bee Network, not in an Aston Martin, sadly) and Bennett heads off, in true spy style, to meet his navy submarine captain friend, I crack the code. No Bond collector is a free agent; for better or worse, you can’t outrun the obsession you have created. The case is never closed, and the chase never ends – even when you end up with a speedboat on your mate’s farm.

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