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Laying your cards on the table.

John Windsor writing in the Independent, March 1992.

Printed ephemera - the throwaway scraps of everday life - are becoming bankable. A glossy dealer's catalogue of a collection of 18th century trade cards has just sold 90% of its 200 lots for £16,000, with a top price of £1,200 for a 1730 card advertising the Chelsea Bun House. Trade cards - for butchers, bakers, coffin-makers - could once be picked up for a few pence in booksellers' rummage boxes.

Underlying the solid rise of ephemera prices are dealers' new found talents for computerised research and scholarly catalogue descriptions. That glossy, fixed-price catalogue of trade cards by Ken Spelman, the York antiquarian booksellers, drew 400 offers to buy from 300 carefully targeted subscribers. A third of the lots were snapped up by institutions, some in America and Japan. Of the rest, most were private buyers rather than dealers. An 1817 hand-bill of Munito the Learned Dog - "can read, copy words and cast accounts" - priced at £95, could have been sold 20 times over.

Speman's Tony Fothergill - who says he would now price Munito at £120 - subscribes to the computerised British Library Automated Information Service (Blaise). He has access to a number of databases of printed material, including the British National Bibliography and the British Library's 18th century short-title catalogue (ESTC) which includes printed ephemera.

The British Library bought about 30 items, and the John Johnson ephemera collection at the Bodleian, Oxford, half a dozen. The BL paid £280 and £160 for two libidinous cards of 1800 and 1805 advertising prostitutes on horseback. The first shows bewigged ladies on racehorses, offers bawdy biographies of them and promises: "after the race the owners and riders meet their male associates and 'tis expected there will be good sport". The catalogue comments that this appears to have been an actual race organised by a bawdy house.

Mr Fothergill says his success is partly because the trade card catalogue came from a book dealer - an unexpectedly up-market source - and used bok dealers' techniques of presentation. He knew he would have to use marketing skills because the owner of the trade cards was aware of their value and other would-be buyers were already pitching for them. The anonymous vendor put together his collection in the Forties and Fifties... it was he who suggested the catalogue. Mr Fothergill, who bid individually for each card said: "He put us on our mettle."

Maurice Rickards, founder and vice-president of the Ephemera Society, visited the vendor before the sale, offered an average of £60-£70 for 24 lots and came away with only 9, outbid by Mr Fothergill. Mr Rickards said: "It was the most grotesque extravagance and unreason", adding "but, of course, I'm kicking myself." 18th century material, he explained, is coveted as "the aristocrat of the field".

It took Mr Fothergill and his partner 6 months to research the collection. They relied on the computer, but since it lists only letterpress items, not engravings, and the BL's 19th century listings are not up to date, they also visited ephemera collections in Oxford and at the BL, for background information.