When Fred Matt got his first Matchbox car when he was five years old, little did he know that it was to be the start of a collection that would be worth upwards of £300,000. And little did he know that this astonishing collection would help fund his divorce 41 years later.
The father of two, who is well known in the collectors' world, is auctioning off his models in September at Vectis Auctions in Thornaby, Teesside.
"When you get divorced, sometimes you need to offload a few things," he was reported as saying. "Some people have to sell their house or their cars. For me, it had to be the collection. I owe millions, but this will go a long way to help pay it off."
Mr Matt, a banker originally from Ohio, began collecting the cars in 1967 when his mother gave him a yellow Matchbox Chevrolet Impala costing 55 cents. He has since amassed 2,250 vehicles, among them Corgi and Dinky toys. Experts value the collection at between £270,000 and £350,000.
His collection also includes models by Spot On, Britains, Tekno, CIJ, Chad Valley and Mettoy. Mr Matt said he would be sad to see the collection go, but his children had no interest in continuing his passion.
You too may have harboured wishes for your own children to get the enjoyment you did from your toys. Yet as times and fashions change, as Mr Matt found out, the toys that you so treasured may be of little interest to your offspring. They may, however, be of interest to your bank balance.
Dinky toys are very popular with collectors at the moment, as are Corgi and Matchbox toys and Hornby locomotives. If it's pre-1970 and in good condition, you may have a collector's item on your hands.
Bonhams expert Kegan Harrison, who is preparing for a sale of toys and dolls this week, said: "Dinky toys were very simple, but they had a real charm about them that appeals to collectors. Corgi tried much harder to make its toys more realistic, with more features and detailing, but not all things scale down well. Corgi does well in sales, Matchbox less so, but Dinky are the monster."
When Dinky toys were first sold they were produced without boxes, but packaging became more detailed in the Sixties and toys were produced to tie in with television programmes such as Thunderbirds, so the packaging adds significant value to toys from this era. The boxes can even be worth more than the toys – in the case of a Batmobile from the Sixties, for example, 60pc of the value is in the box.
Valuable Dinky toys to look out for are two-tone cars from the Fifties, and sets, such as the fire brigade set, in their original boxes. The holy grail of Dinky collectables is finding a promotional vehicle – a van or truck. These were not available commercially and were produced for companies in very small private production runs to give to prospective customers and board members.
Their rarity means that they can be worth £6,000 if they are in their box. Of Mr Matt's collection, one of the more valuable pieces is a red Matchbox number 45 Vauxhall Victor, estimated to be worth £3,000.
Cars are not the only choice for toy collectors.
Model trains have many passionate aficionados, including pop star Rod Stewart, whose model train set – which includes a scale model of New York's Grand Central Station – has pride of place in his Beverly Hills mansion. Stewart graced the cover of Model Railroader, the collectors' magazine, in 2007, and has an additional track set up in his Essex home. Other famous enthusiasts include Eric Clapton, Jools Holland and Phil Collins, but train collecting is not just the preserve of the wealthy.
There are fairs and festivals across Britain where model railway enthusiasts flock in droves, with collectors paying tens of thousands of pounds for the finest pieces of work.
Models of value fall mainly into two categories. Either they are vintage pieces, commercially produced and valuable because of their age, rarity or limited production run, or they will be one-off pieces created by enthusiasts. The trains are collectable in the same way as model cars and were produced by companies such as Hornby, Triang and Wrenn.
Model railways began as a hobby in the late 1800s but really became popular in the 1930s. Collectors tend to specialise by scale or gauge – the size of track the trains run on – or by manufacturer. The gauges are O, HO, N, Z and G.
Collectors may also specialise in a type of train such as steam or on recreating a specific real-life line or station. An eBay search threw up a live steam, seven and a quarter inch American General locomotive with current bids at $12,000. The hidden reserve price had not been met at the time of writing.
Hornby locomotives on the www.vintagehornby.net collectors' site range in price from £345 to £3,500, depending on condition and whether the seller still has the original box, whether the model has a mechanical guarantee and whether any restoration work has been carried out.
According to John Millensted of Bonhams, collectables may also be immune from the credit crunch. He said: "I've not seen any collectors who think they've got to sell up. They like it for what it is. I can't see why it [the collectables market] would crash and most people who are going to buy this stuff make sure their finances are fairly happy beforehand.
"You get your mortgage paid first and then you can have some fun."