Toy fanatic Stuart McKell has spent £50,000 on his collection
Despite the recession, business is booming at vintage toy fairs across Britain - with collectors prepared to part with thousands of pounds.
It is Sunday morning at a football stadium in Coventry but the crowds are not here for a big sporting event or rock concert, they are in search of children's toys.
Not that there are many children about - most of the collectors are middle-aged men, eagerly scouring the packed hall for bargains.
There are hundreds of stalls selling everything from hi-tech dancing robots to antique dolls with human hair and unnerving glass eyes.
Making a purchase at one toy-laden table is 53-year-old Ian Woodhouse. He has just paid £75 for a die-cast flying saucer from the sci-fi series UFO, one of a string of cult shows made in the 60s and 70s by the producer Gerry Anderson.
Sellers David Stringer and Nicola Lovell say business is thriving
He said: "I grew up watching Gerry Anderson programmes on TV - Stingray, Joe 90, Captain Scarlet. It's amazing all these years later to own a perfect representation of what I used to lust after as a child."
He admits spending thousands of pounds on his collection over the years, but says he has never dared to add up exactly how much. And he is still on the look out for pieces to complete his vast collection.
Top of his most wanted list is a limited edition version of Lady Penelope's Thunderbirds Rolls Royce (reg plate: FAB 1) finished in shiny pearlescent pink, complete with firing missiles and the ever faithful Parker in the driver's seat.
It is a far cry from his day job in the fire protection industry, and he says work colleagues are sometimes surprised when they find out about his private passion.
"There is a stereotypical image of collectors. It's seen as perhaps a bit geeky or a bit strange. I accept you can get a bit obsessive but - just look around - lots of people do it," he said.
The crowds are a welcome sight for fair organiser Ellis Potter, whose family has been running toy fairs for 30 years. He reckons they have never been busier.
THE HOLY GRAILS
Dinky Toy Weetabix van (1952) £3,000
Star Wars Jawa with plastic cape (1978) £500
Hornby Dublo rail cleaning wagon (1964) £500
Rare non-soldier Action Man footballer (1968) £300
Corgi Yellow Submarine with hatch that opens to reveal The Beatles (1969) £300
Values by expert Barry Potter based on mint toys in package
He said: "We put on about 40 events a year. Nationally there are probably 200 toy fairs a year, and they just get bigger, like supermarkets. "Whereas interest in traditional antiques seem to be dwindling, the great thing about toys is they keep attracting new generations who want to collect mementos from their youth."
Across the hall, some younger buyers are gathered around boxed Star Wars figures on a table belonging to David Stringer and Nicola Lovell. The pair have been selling for 10 years and say business is thriving.
"People may be cutting back on big things like new cars and foreign holidays," Mr Stringer said.
"But they still want to treat themselves when the fairs come round and you can still get something nice for a few pounds - you don't need to break the bank."
Under the hammer
The couple believe early computer games, and even early computers, could well be the next big thing for collectors as 20 and 30-somethings grow nostalgic for their first digital experiences.
Their advice to anyone getting into collecting is to seek out items in mint condition, complete with the original packaging, as these are more likely to keep their value.
Ms Lovell advises parents to hang on to the boxes. She said: "Even if you think it's rubbish, just stick it in the loft and - you never know - it could be worth something one day."
In fact a pristine box can be worth more than the toy it once held. The UK's biggest toy auctioneer Vectis, based in Stockton-on-Tees, recently sold an empty cardboard box for a pre-war Dinky saloon car set for a staggering £1,700.
Buyers peruse stalls choc-a-bloc with toys old and new
The company shifts an annual total of £6m worth of vintage toys - not just to bidders in Britain, but around the world.
David Nathan, from Vectis, estimates that the most sought-after toys are increasing in price at a rate of 10% a year.
"That's better than the stock market and interest rates are so low it's better than money in the bank," he said.
The company even offers a toy-based investment portfolio, where investors can deposit money that the firm's experts use to snap up items they believe will gain most in value.
Of course, as with any investment, a return is not guaranteed. Prices for teddy bears and dolls have been largely static in recent years. But other toys have shot up in value.
Mr Nathan said a £1,000 investment in a collection of Matchbox cars 50 years ago which were kept away from light, dust and grubby fingers, would now be worth at least £100,000.
Back at the fair, such calculations mean little to a satisfied, smiling Mr Woodhouse, who was heading home with the latest addition to his cherished archive.
He said: "You do it for the passion, not profit. Toys bring back happy memories - and you can't put a price on that."
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