Martin Webb amassed 700 Alfa Romeo miniatures - and a life-size one, too - before his death.
Giant Alfa Romeo model car collection on the auction block
Martin Webb liked classic Alfa Romeos so much that he collected 700 of them.
He acquired everything from early 1930s 8C sports cars to lorries. If the quixotic Italian vehicle maker had built it, there was a good chance that Webb owned an example - or at least a scale representation of it. Webb's Alfa collection is made up of models.
He did have a grown-up Alfa, too. This was an immaculate Duetto (the round-tailed sports car featured in The Graduate), but it's his very big collection of little Alfas that is so remarkable, since it's probably the biggest collection of its kind in the world. And after Webb's death last year, the collection is being auctioned at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey, England.
The collection is so extensive that it's going to take two auctions, with the first tranche of models going under the hammer on next Saturday (February 18) and the remainder up for sale on May 26. Some of the more exotic examples are likely to change hands for more than £500 (Dh2,900).
Gerry Pettit, automobilia expert at the auction house Historics at Brooklands, is a good person to judge what inspires grown men (and yes, it is usually men) to amass and lovingly preserve things that were often originally conceived as children's toys (although there are plenty of beautifully detailed model cars aimed squarely at grown-up collectors - he used to run a shop buying and selling them).
Webb was one of his customers, and the pair would run into each other at collectors' fairs all over Europe. Pettit thinks these models often provide a satisfying connection with childhood, as how they look, feel and even smell, provides an instant, powerful nostalgia. An adult appreciation of detail and craftsmanship can also play its part.
Pettit felt there was a real bond with his one-time client, and both clearly had a lot in common. Before he began buying and selling model cars Pettit worked as a mechanic fixing real ones, and after service with the RAF, Webb co-owned a garage business, which sounds very much as if it was run as much for the love of the cars it fettled as it was a means of earning a living.
By a great irony, Webb was forced to change careers after losing an eye in a car accident, but what had become a day job remained a hobby and a very particular passion, sustained by his burgeoning collection of model Alfa Romeos. About 200 of Webb's collection are kits, often dating back 40 or more years. Some he assembled with forensic care. "Imagine fitting a wiper blade the size of a human hair," says Pettit. "As you get older, you have to sit behind a big magnifying glass to do that."
Here the enthusiasm could sometimes take on an almost private aspect. Pettit talks about assembling tiny engines, filled with scaled down moving parts, that required an awful lot of care, precision, dexterity and hours of patient labour to fit together but, once assembled, all these parts became entirely invisible.
The point of this, presumably, was tied up in the achievement of making an accurate scale model as much as looking at the model itself, and there is an inherent visual balance and "rightness" to something that's been faithfully scaled down and authentically detailed. And unlike a real car, a model will never go expensively wrong, won't deteriorate in the same way and is unlikely to give its devoted owner the same amount of grief if there is a problem.
Either way, many of these models have a permanent connection to their owner, because he actually made them. Others remain sealed in the same boxes they were sold in back in the 1960s and '70s. Pettit talks in a slightly awed way about three unopened kits made in the 1970s by a company called Togi, as an Egyptologist might about the contents of an unopened Pharaonic tomb.
Most of the models in the Webb collection date from after the Second World War. They have a certain resonance with baby boomer collectors who perhaps had childhood hankerings for the cars they portray, or bought similar models when they were new, but committed the sacrilege of playing with them until they wore out.
Go back two or three decades, says Pettit, and it was the pre-War tin models that used to be in vogue as collectables. But as the people who remembered them died, so the models' market has shrunk and become much more rarefied, and their place has been taken by more recent models. Being made in living memory is a selling point, but inevitably that living memory changes.
Asked to name personal favourites among Webb's giant collection, with its bright colours and multiple shapes and sizes, and Pettit waivers, sounding a little like a child confronted with the contents of the world's biggest sweet shop.
"Some of the models are lovely; really nicely detailed, but others are very old and have no details, and they're great, too," Pettit adds. "There are some wonderful ones produced in 1940, which are very crude. Metals for toys really weren't around then, and the crudeness is what makes them beautiful."
It seems sad that Webb's very personal model collection will be dispersed, but at least the recipients of the models it contained will get enduring pleasure from owning them. Which, if nothing else, is what they were made for in the first place.
For more information, visit www.historics.co.uk.