Be very careful when you clear the loft…

Toys are a notoriously unreliable investment, subject to everything from savaging by guard dogs to the whims of a fickle market. But pick the right collectible and you could make serious money.

Toys should not be viewed as reliable investments, warn collectors. Items that have great popular appeal one day can suddenly go out of fashion the next.

As the savaging of a £40,000 Steiff teddy-bear by an irritated guard dog last month confirmed, toys are hardly as safe as bricks and mortar when it comes to long-term security. But that said, the market in certain toys, such as rare Steiff bears, toy trains and dolls, has been established for some time. But while collectors of such items could be sitting on serious capital, the secret is establishing what the trends of tomorrow will be. And on that front, most collectors are stumped.

As far as spotting future trends is concerned, you might as well predict which sector of the stockmarket will double first, says Hugo Marsh of Christie's. And he has a further warning for investors looking to dip their toes in the sector look at the demography. "Toy collectors are ageing", he says, and "if your buyers are dead, there is no market". Yes, the value of certain items, such as Dinky toys, has increased in recent years, but over the past two decades, "there hasn't been a great deal of price movement".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

That flat market reflects the worries of toy makers such as Hasbro and Mattel, who fear that children are turning towards video games and away from toys. Overall, Marsh believes that prices for toy collectables are at their peak for the time being.

Nevertheless, there are always exceptions and bargains to hunt out. Among the more established collectables are Barbie dolls, launched in 1959. The largest known collection of Barbies (4,000) is up for auction in London on 26 September. The lot has a conservative estimate of over £100,000. Even more remarkably, action figures associated with the original Star Wars films now regularly go for more than £1,000.

A pensioner who bought 20 plastic Star Wars figures at retail prices 28 years ago sold them for over £10,000 in 2003. The key with such items is that they are not taken out of their original boxes, as this can reduce their value by more than half.

Another booming area is toy trains. Despite the stereotype, "train enthusiasts are not a quirky minority", says Gwyn Jones in The Independent. Indeed, train collections are "steaming ahead in the auction rooms with demand outstripping supply". Hornby and Bassett-Lowke models are the ones to look out for. A Hornby 0 Gauge number two special tank engine locomotive in mint condition in its original box will fetch £650, compared to £350 five years ago.

Dinky cars, especially pre-war examples, are also in big demand, with Christie's recently selling an HG loose promotional delivery van for £4,600. Also dating from that era are the super-rare Steiff bears, the most expensive of which sold for £110,000 in 1994. Identifiable by a Steiff button in their left ear, two recently sold for £10,080 after being rescued from a skip. So be careful what you throw out.

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and was a senior writer for MoneyWeek. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example digging into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.