5 JULY 1975, Page 27

A fool and his money

Instant heirlooms

Bernard Hollowood

Have you bought any family heirlooms lately? I only ask because advertisements in the press have recently been making a song and dance about heirlooms and making me feel terribly underprivileged.

Heirlooms, artefacts handed down from generation to generation, old masters, bits of Chippendale, curios, jewels, carpets, china figures and so on — my family seems to have none of them. I recently made an inventory of all our material possessions and there wasn't an heirloom among them. In fact the nearest things we have to heirlooms are articles that we found stuffed into the attic when we moved into our last house but one — a hideous wrought iron standard lamp and a brass shellcasing clearly marked -Krupp."

No, I tell a lie. We do have part of a canteen of silver cutlery that belonged to my wife's grandmother and a napkin ring that may once have been the property of my maternal grandfather, though the initials are all wrong and might just possibly be LMS. But three tablespoons, a fork and a napkin ring aren't much to show for, say, a hundred years of the acquisitive instinct. The heirlooms advertised in the newspapers are nearly all limited editions of commemorative coins or medallions made variously of gold, silver or bronze and costing an awful lot of money. I was interested in an ad that ran:


The ancient London company, Metropolitan Bullion Ltd., has the honour to announce the production of a strictly limited edition of Famous British Trams in high-grade, specially selected metal. Each piece, a perfect replica in miniature has relief, represents the work of the distinguished Italian artist and sculptor, Arturo Pastorelli, and bears his initials.

These FB Trams are certain to appreciate in value and buyers are therefore allowed to acquire only one set (of 18 pieces) each.

Please Rush me my personal edition of Famous British Trams. I enclose cheque for £89.90 to cover cost, postage and presentation see-through container. Add your name and address.

Allow up to eight weeks for delivery.

No question about it, I was attracted by this unique offer. A set of Famous British Trams in highgrade, specially selected metal would give my family a lift, a sense of respect and belonging. I thought about the money, all £89.90 of it,

' and then I thought about our lack of heirlooms. The Trams would be just the thing to bring out before visitors, to prove to them that we are a family with traditions, taste and a keen interest in electric locomotion. Our fathers and grandfathers rode on famous British trams. In fact I can just remember them myself. And what pleasant memories they evoke! The driver standing there on the platform, levering the contact handle and operating the bell with his foot. The prominent "No Spitting" notices, the cracks in the wooden seats where I risked losing, and often lost, my ticket.

Oh, yes, very evocative. I mentioned the possible investment to a friend in The Green Man, showed him the advertisement.

My friend works for the Post Office. He 'said: "Why d'you suppose it says 'Allow up to eight weeks for delivery'?"

"Well," I said, "I reckon it's because the postal service is pretty slow. No offence, of course." "Rubbish," he said. "That's what

' they want you to think. That advert is libellous. Because the Post Office is a public service they think they can massacre us. Eight weeks! It's a scandal!"

"But there must be some reason for the statement," I said. "There are many reasons," he

• said. "for starters there's the possibility of the subscriber, the purchaser, disappearing during those eight weeks. People die, you know, or become or simply forget. Every year thousands of people order goods by post and lose their money because the transaction slips their memory. A 'clear 100 per cent profit to the dealer." "I'm not likely to forget the outlay of a sum like £89.90, am I?" I said. "Not in a mere eight weeks?" "But it would be more than eight weeks," he said. "You might remember the sum after eight weeks and think of sending the bullion people a reminder. But people don't as a rule. They argue that there must be some good reason for the delay — Post Office inefficiency perhaps — and they decide to give it another month. And gradually the heirloom loses its significance and is forgotten. Oh, yes, it happens. "Mind you there are other reasons for the eight weeks' delay," he went on. "It takes time for your cheque to be cleared or for the dealer to get a fix on your credit rating. You pay a deposit, say, of £20 and they're instantly on to a credit information agency in your area. There are people who live in your town who make it their business to know how you stand financially and are prepared to sell the information for a few guineas. You don't know them, but they know all about you — how much you owe the butcher and the dentist and the tailor, what is the total of your indebtedness, whether you're keeping another woman, and so on. And it takes time to collect the information needed and put it through the computer along with such facts as can be garnered about your salary or pension, your insurance and investments, if any."

-I'd no idea," I said.

"But the main reason for the eight weeks' delay is that the bullion people need time to produce the Trams pieces. All you see in the advertisement is an artist's drawing of the set. When you order there may be nothing more than the rough sketch in existence. If enough people sent in their money, then the bullion people will feel if worthwhile to engage Arturo Pastorelli, order some metal and hire a die-cutter and a metal moulder. If the response is poor, they'll wait until you make repeated enquiries about the heirlooms and finally they'll send back your money, which has meanwhile been earning them interest at 10 per cent, with a statement to the effect that the limited edition is oversubscribed and you're out of luck."

"You amaze me," I said. "Does

this skulduggery really go on?" "I don't see why not," he said. "Any company that could blacken the reputation of the Post Office with that eight weeks nonsense is capable of gross deception. I wouldn't trust 'em an inch."

"Then I shall keep my £89.90 and do without the Famous British Trams heirlooms. Now I'd like your advice on another matter. I'm interested in a series of ten portraits on sterling-type silver coins of British Lepidopterists of the period 1860-1940. Only £62.90, limited edition and 'allow six weeks for delivery'. I'm definitely attracted, because we're damnably short of heirlooms in my family. What d'you say?"

Bernard Hollowood, formerly editor of Punch, writes this column weekly in The Spectator