One man's Smurf mission

You might think Smurfs belong in the Seventies with Spangles, and Stretch Armstrong, but Billy Long would beg to differ.A self-confessed Smurfaholic, Billy has one of the country's largest collections of the little blue figurines - more than 2,000 at the last count.

You might think Smurfs belong in the Seventies with Spangles, and Stretch Armstrong, but Billy Long would beg to differ.

A self-confessed Smurfaholic, Billy has one of the country's largest collections of the little blue figurines - more than 2,000 at the last count.

There are Smurfs playing football and tennis, Smurfs on the moon and, even more bizarrely, Smurfs holding golden pigs.

What is more, Billy is looking to boost his collection this weekend when he travels to Brussels for Smurf Passion, Europe's biggest event for Smurf enthusiasts.

Smurfs were created in 1958 by Belgian cartoonist Peyo. They were a huge success and led to a spin-off range of merchandise, including models, games and toys, and later a TV series.

During the late Seventies, the Smurf craze reached epidemic proportions and in 1978, a record called The Smurf Song by Father Abraham and the Smurfs was a worldwide hit, reaching number two in the UK.

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Billy, 40, of Sprowston, near Norwich, started collecting Smurfs as a 10-year-old when they were sold and given away at National petrol stations, whose advertising boasted “Service with a Smurf”.

When the promotion ended in the early Eighties, Billy stopped collecting but started again in earnest a decade ago when his wife Tracy returned home from a shopping trip in Norwich with two more Smurfs.

“I then spent the next couple of months getting her to get them for me - I felt a bit embarrassed because they were kids' things,” said Billy.

“But then everyone who came round to the house said how nice they were. No one mocked me for collecting them - they were all drawn to them. Whenever anyone comes in they say 'I remember them!' It's a retro thing.”

Billy joined a collectors' club and started going to collectors' fairs to buy more Smurfs. Although the toys are no longer available in British shops, they are still manufactured by German company Schleich and are popular on the continent. “I can't explain why I collect them,” said Billy. “Perhaps it's because they are colourful and all different.

“From a young age I have collected things: football programmes, matchboxes, stickers. I just love it. It's like an addiction. You just have to be patient and slowly you build up your collection. “Some people collect clay pipes - that would bore me to death - but that's their passion. It does get expensive, though.”

He's not wrong. While a basic Smurf costs just a couple of pounds, rarer examples - for instance, prototypes or foreign models - can cost several hundred.

Billy, whose hobby has led to appearances on TV with John Craven and Sarah Greene, has been known to pay £200 or more for an individual Smurf. At a conservative estimate he reckons he has spent £10,000 on his collection over the last 10 years. “I've spent silly money - far too much,” he said.

Tracy, 36, would agree. “He once spent £900 in a day,” she said. “We had a row over that.”

Billy buys most of his Smurfs from dealers in Belgium and Germany via eBay. Although the auction website has revolutionised his hobby, there are pitfalls for the inexperienced collectors in the form of counterfeit Smurfs.

Billy's Smurfs are on display in cabinets in the living room of his chalet bungalow. Although he's a grown man, he sees no shame in collecting what are essentially children's toys.

Billy, who runs a car-valeting and paintshop business, said: “I've got eight or nine lads working for me and no one laughs at all.” Not that his own children, Taylor, nine, and Harrison, five, are allowed near his Smurfs. “They know not to touch them or even to open the cabinets,” said Billy.

Would he say he is obsessed by Smurfs? “No, I'm not obsessed. I spend a couple of hundred pounds a month. Some nights I'm on the computer for 20 minutes; sometimes a couple of hours.”

Billy sees his collection as an investment and reckons it's already worth more than he paid for it. With the 50th anniversary of the Smurfs next year and the first part of an animated film trilogy due to be released, he believes it can only appreciate in value. “It's like putting money in the bank,” he said.

Billy cannot foresee ever completing his Smurf collection - there are countless models from different countries and manufacturers and too many associated figures to collect - but he has drawn up a shopping list ahead of his eagerly-awaited trip to Belgium.

“If there are a few nice prototypes there I'm going to have them,” he said.

So will he ever stop collecting? “I've said to myself I will stop eventually, sell them all and go on a cruise.”

Tracy, though, does not believe a word of it. “I don't think it will end. He will turn into a Smurf,” she said.