Shalini John takes a step back in time as collector David May shows her around his world.

Arshad Ali/Gulf News

Hardened antique hunters and collectors know only too well that real treasures are hidden, and hidden well.

Collector's World is a gem tucked away in the corridors of the Green Community mall, past Arabian Ranches.

David May's brainchild nestles cosily on the waterfront of a picturesque man-made lake, housing a cornucopia of rare and eccentric collections and a promise to entertain.

His collection includes the world's first postage stamp from England, autographs of the rich and famous that go back to the 1800s, including Napoleon's approval on a job application, cigarette cards from before the first world war, Japanese train tickets, antique toy cars and exquisitely beautiful Chinese porcelain dolls.

May has built up this trove of delights over almost forty years.

Arshad Ali/Gulf News

"A hundred years ago, a French colonial administrator named Henri Sebaury sat in a restaurant in Haiphong, near Hanoi, overlooking the pretty pagoda on Petit Lac. He wrote on a postcard portraying the scene to his friend in France. A French Indochina postage stamp was used to send it on its way. I wonder if he could imagine that it would find its way one day over a century later to my shop," explained the owner.

May is almost personally attached to his pieces and I got the feeling that he might not worry too much if they didn't sell.

"These are real pieces of history. Unlike impersonal textbooks, old postcards record the thoughts and observations of real people who experienced life first-hand in these far off lands, all those years ago."

We didn't know where to look, but May guided us with a firm hand. First up were vintage postcards from the Arab world and the Far East. Black-and-white pictures of Siamese women and Omani Bedouins from a far-removed era elbowed for space with postage stamps from the region.

Stamp designs

In 1971, the emirate of Ajman was prolific in designing stamps, the majority of which portrayed scenes from the Western world and Asia. Stamps from Zanzibar held portraits of Sultan Seyyid Hamoud-bin-Mohammed bin Said bearing obvious resemblance to his relative, Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman.

Tens of thousands of postage stamps from the Gulf, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Ceylon, Asia, Europe and East Africa cluttered our view, vying for attention, including the world's first of Queen Victoria worth £4,500 in its unused form and £225 once it is used.

Financial gains with philately were patiently explained. May, an agent for Stanley Gibbons "the most famous name in philately", said even the "Queen's investment department uses them".

He told me that while stamps appreciate by 11 per cent, famous autographs appreciate by 19 per cent. I looked with renewed interest at a job application written in French and signed by Napoleon in 1810 and now worth £2,500 (Dh16,750).

Companies like Kensitas and BDV Cigarettes introduced cigarette cards to smokers in the 1910's and '20s with mainly country flags, army badges and emblems and flags of Scottish clans, including "Leslie" and "MacDougall" with background colours and designs representing the particular design of each clan's kilt.

May, who resigned as head of human resources, HSBC after 30 years, has travelled extensively. His postings included Salalah, Oman, Yemen, Hong Kong, Dubai and Japan. Having a father working in the Foreign Office and growing up in Lebanon and Pakistan further fuelled his passion for the exotic.

As a child, he collected toy cars — many of them. A bright red 1960s Thrushbuster with the Man from U.N.C.L.E. stood next to the James Bond Toyota 2000GT from You Only Live Twice, among a host of other famous models. Besides cars, various detailed models of real ships adorn the interiors in teak wood.

Vietnamese artisans crafted masterpieces in a quiet little village to immortalise the HMS Victory and others.

"Horatio Nelson died on the Victory in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar," narrated May. Side shelves were lined witbeautiful, teak wood motorboats with amazing detail and upholstered in real leather with chrome stainless steel fittings.

Funny money with pictures of Elvis and other famous faces grinned at us in sardonic grandeur. The Beatles were minted by Penny Lane Bank, characters from Keeping Up Appearances made an appearance, Harry Potter was minted by Gringotts Bank and Fawlty Towers characters posed in the corner. May even has collections of the satirical, original 1889 prints of Punch magazines.

My favourites, though, were the Judy Ren porcelain dolls from China. Ren, who also designs adult clothes, recreated the romance of the 1920s and 1800s European gowns on flawless girls with hand-painted faces.

They were demure and lovely and aulde worlde and only needed a Mr Darcy to come charging along on his white mare. With something for everyone, Collector's World is indeed everyone's world.