TOM Mathieson is a man best known for dealing in quality art. But the 75-year-old has a secret addiction: he's a Matchbox collector. These miniature die-cast toys, which arrived here from Britain in 1956, were part of growing up in Australia for baby boomers.
But today, Matchbox collecting has appeal to all ages and people from all walks of life confess to being avid fans. Matchbox, along with Dinky and Corgi, captured many of us at an early age and the memories live on.
But this is not kids' stuff; Matchbox collecting is big business. The die-cast models in the Yesteryear collection, which charts international automotive history, are not toys but sought-after investment pieces.
Today, serious money changes hands for rare and prototype Matchbox models.
Mathieson, who ran the Matchbox International Collectors Association in Australia and New Zealand for 22 years, says ''there's still strong interest in the hobby, although perhaps not as strong as 10 years ago''.
''You had to grow up with these models to have a real affection for them and that weighs heavily on the serious players in the business.
''I became hooked in the early '80s when the wife of an art client introduced me to a friend who had a toy shop.
''I quickly got caught up in the nostalgia for the antique cars in the Yesteryear collection. My first model was an Arnott's Biscuits van that I paid $7.50 for and which quickly rose to be an $80 collectable. I've been a car buff from an early age, so I began to buy up new issues and research old catalogues for obsolete and rare models.''
Today, Mathieson, who has a well-trained eye for rare art, has more than 2500 models, which he says are conservatively valued at about $250,000. ''I was lucky early on to buy a complete collection out of the US of everything Matchbox had produced.''
While it might not be the largest in the world, the depth of this collection makes it one of the most prestigious in the country and one of the top Yesteryear collections in the world.
One room of Mathieson's house is now devoted to miniatures displayed in period cabinets. And, understandably with theft a big concern, they're protected by electronic surveillance.
A 200-page catalogue details every model. ''I have every single Yesteryear model released but also an extraordinary number of resin prototypes, rare colour variations and trial models as well as some of the early toys by Lesney, the original Matchbox manufacturer,'' he says.
Mathieson affectionately refers to his collection as ''the world motoring history in miniature''.
Lesney Products started the Matchbox brand in 1953. The two partners were Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith, hence the name Lesney, and their first big sales success was the million-selling model of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation coach.
''It was made in two sizes. The large one is rarer and if you're lucky enough to have one with both the [old] king and queen on board, it's worth much more. The king died and Lesney made several hundred before they removed him from the model. I have several of these in mint condition and boxed and they bring upwards of $2000, whereas the standard one is worth $800 to $1000.''
Mathieson is also proud of his rare Soap Box Racer - one of 1440 produced in 1949 by Lesney and valued today at $10,000. ''As you can imagine, they were lucky to survive the rigours of a child's nursery and I'm lucky to have a mint example.''
He also cherishes the model of the Dutch-built 1904 Spyker that Kenneth More drove in Genevieve, the movie that kick-started the old-car collector movement in 1956.
''The standard yellow Spyker as in the movie is valued today at $50-$70 but I was fortunate many years ago to buy the prototype in two-tone green and another pre-production model in maroon.
''Today, the prototype is valued at $15,000.''
Another rare item in the collection is a 1930 Duesenberg Model J Sedanca, a car that in real life today is a sought-after collectable and brings several million dollars.
''Any Matchbox collector will know that this model in distinctive white, yellow and red livery is one of only 15 'White Duesenbergs' in existence. I paid $300 for it in the '80s. Today, it's valued at $5000.''
From a local perspective, some of the Australian-skewed models in Mathieson's portfolio have also gained strongly in value. His first model, the 1982 Arnott's Biscuits van released with an issue price of $7.50, now attracts about $400.
Lesney Toys went bankrupt in June 1982 and the tooling, moulds and other assets were sold to Universal Toys, which by 1985 had taken Matchbox die-casting offshore to China. In May 1992, the Matchbox brand was sold for $US270 million to Tyco Toys, which sold it to Mattel in 1997. Sadly, three years after Mattel bought the brand, Matchbox Collectables Inc was mothballed.
Tips on matchbox collectables
- Preserve the packaging
- Original packaging can add as much as 50 per cent to their sale price.
- Maintain model condition
- Never store a model in the sun or under strong fluorescent lights.
- Handle with care
- Die-cast models are not toys - don't ruin their value by letting children play with them.
- Watch out for fakes
- Be careful if you're buying at garage sales and markets - make sure you get an authorised dealer or recognised collector to authenticate rare examples.
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