Tell you what I'd love for Christmas: a shrunken human head. No, I didn't know you could buy them either until I read Toby Walne's marvelous stocking-filler, '101 Extraordinary Investments'. But now I know exactly what to look for, so don't try fobbing me off with fakes made of monkey or sloth.
A real shrunken head, I have learned, is leathery, about the size of a fist and comes from the Amazon basin, eastern India or Burma. In the 19th Century, the going rate for a head was one musket, in the mid-20th century about £20 and today it's about £5,000. So now you know.
This fascinating book is a cornucopia of amusing or nostalgia-inducing trivia about collectables ranging from Action Man (the first fuzzy-haired version: 1970; first rubber-gripped hands: 1973) to Barbie (named after the daughter of her American creators). There are saucy seaside postcards (Donald McGill, creator of 12,000 of them over five decades was eventually fined in 1954 for 'peddling smut') and old toilets: an original Crapper 'thunder box' can set you back thousands.
In the toy-soldier section we learn that one of the most collectable of all lead figurines is a 'village idiot', created after the First Wold War for a farm series. Walne explains: 'The figure was introduced after King George V, inspecting the sets, asked, "Where is the village idiot?". It was soon after withdrawn for being too tasteless.'
Scarcity value is, of course, what makes some investments more precious than others. For example, the most valuable Rupert Bear annual is not the first one from 1936 (£2,500 if in its original dust wrapper) but the one from a proof run of just a dozen in 1973 when Rupert was accidentally given a brown face (£23,000). Similarly a Seventies doll of Dr Who's assistant Leela is worth twice as much, £300, as her Tom Baker equivalent because 'boys sunned the toy as a Barbie Doll lookalike and makers Denys Fisher couldn't even give it away'.
Reviewed by James Delingpole