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Bizarre investments that turn a profit

Cover of  by Toby Walne

Bizarre investments that turn a profit
Shrunken heads, toys like Barbie and Action Man, punk paraphernalia and top hats can all be worth collecting, says Toby Walne

The spirit of adventure and exploration in the Victorian era marks the beginning of a fascination for alternative investments that make money today.

Among the earliest bizarre trades was the shrunken head. Intrepid British explorers of the 1850s stumbled across the gruesome trophy deep in the Amazonian forest in South America. Initially, the exchange rate was a musket for a shrunken head ? a decent deal for Jivaro Indians previously armed only with bows, arrows and spears.

But by the mid-20th century it was a dying ? and illegal ? art and, with fist-sized heads no longer made to order, they were changing hands for £20. Present-day investors can expect to pay £5,000 for an authentic shrunken head ? though the record is the $15,000 (£9,000) paid by exhibition firm Ripley's Believe It or Not for one once owned by author Ernest Hemingway.

Those who would rather limit their adventures to childhood favourites might choose an Action Man, which has been growing in value by an average of 5% a year over the past decade. This plastic doll began life as an American citizen ? GI Joe ? in 1964 before emigrating to Britain two years later. An early example can now fetch £600.

As with other collectibles, models that have not been played with but kept in pristine condition inside the box command the highest price ? at least doubling values. Accessories are worth even more: the Holy Grail is a 1970s cricket strip that sells at £6,000.

Action Man was honourably discharged from duty in 1984 when youngsters started buying Star Wars figures ? which has boosted values. Sadly, the modern politically correct Action Man is virtually worthless as a collector's item.

His occasional girlfriend Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday this year. Don't bother with Ken, who was never an item with Barbie and remains a relatively worthless boy-next-door drip. But anyone who forked out $3 (£1.70) for the very first Barbie, complete with black-and-white swimsuit, could sell her for £8,000 if she is still in the original box.

Barbie's early life was not as wholesome as the All-American girl might have you believe, as she was modelled on a sexy German comic strip called Bild Lilli. The first 1959 Barbie is easy to recognise, as she had holes in the bottom of her feet to set her on a stand that disappeared the following year.

Barbie has gone under the plastic surgeon's knife many times over the years ? boob enhancements, chin tucks and nose jobs. However, collectors are primarily interested in the vintage models made between 1959 and 1972, and the rarest glamour accessories.

For authenticity, check the right cheek of Barbie's bottom for a date stamp, and be wary of "Frankenstein fakes" as forgeries abound. As with other alternative investments, it is best to pay slightly over the odds with a reputable dealer than trust to luck on the internet.

Punk rock once stood for anarchy but is now a highly respectable investment, with artefacts also fetching hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

The most iconic and collectible items are by The Sex Pistols. Formed in 1975 they produced only four singles and a studio album ? Never Mind the Bollocks ? in the three years when Johnny Rotten was in the band.

The most valuable is the God Save the Queen single cut on the A&M label in 1977 before it dropped them and the group moved to Virgin. The unreleased A&M vinyl is valued at £5,000 by the Rare Record Price Guide but has hit as high as £12,000 at auction.

Publicity material, such as a controversial Sex Pistols tour poster showing genitals, can fetch as much as £3,000.

Other punk bands whose posters can sell for more than £1,000 include the Clash, the Damned, the Ramones and New York Dolls.

Punk clothes by Vivienne Westwood are also highly sought after. Original 'Destroy', 'Chaos' and 'God Save the Queen' T-shirts sell for £500.

A pair of authentic Westwood tartan bondage trousers will sell for £2,000. But if a stiff upper lip and formal dress wear is more your idea of fun than chaotic noise and bleeding ears, why not invest in a top hat?

This dandy headgear was the punk accessory of its day and allegedly caused a riot when first worn by haberdasher John Hetherington in 1797. Several women fainted, children screamed, dogs yelped, and an errand boy's arm was broken when he was trampled by the mob.

Yet by the late 19th century, few men ventured out without a "topper". It was only in the 20th century that this common hat became a fashion statement for toffs.

The best early woven silks can now fetch £5,000 and prices have risen as much as 50% in the past five years as their rarity has been realised. This is because the last of the original French silk looms for making top hats was destroyed in the Sixties when it was then thrown into the river Seine.

Big heads can be blamed for the highest prices, as sizes popular today are unusually large compared to the less swell-headed Victorians.

Although silk top hats are the most collectible, they were once also made of beaver fur ? which is where the term "refurbishment" originates. It is only the finest quality original true silks that sell for £1,000 or more ? old felt or silk-imitation hats can still be picked up for as little as £50.

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