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Train Collecting Tips

What You Should Know

Actual selling prices for antique toy trains will always depend on several different factors, including how motivated the buyer and the seller are, the location, and economic climate. The skills of the buyer at bargaining and the seller at promoting also effects the price. It is impossible to combine all these factors and arrive at one definitive price for any single antique toy train item. Keep this in mind when making purchases. Here are a few things to remember that can assist with obtaining valuable items for a collection:

1. Scarcity helps determine value. The rarest of trains can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Rarity is an important element of collecting. However, there are items that show up regularly, but are in such great demand with collectors, that the prices are higher than expected. Conversely, some items are hard to find, but have a low price tag because collectors are not interested in them. When the manufacturers issued their trains, some were not as popular and met with lower sales, and thus the manufacturers produced small quantities of these models. A train item that has low production numbers may be considered rare, but if the model was not popular, it may not be as desireable with collectors as more popular items that were produced in greater quantities.

A wide assortment of toy trains awaits you at TCA meets2. Brand names count. In the United States Lionel is the most collectible, followed by American Flyer and Marx. Lesser known American made brands such as Ives, Carlisle & Finch, Voltamp, Boucher, Dorfan, Hafner, Hoge, Buddy L, Howard, Thomas Industries, Kusan, AMT/Auburn, E.P. Alexander/American Model Railroad Co., and Knapp Electric all existed in the 20th century and are no longer in business, so the products that they produced are hard to find and have value to collectors.

There are several foreign manufacturers who made toy and scale model trains that have also become popular with collectors and could be worth something. These brand names include British companies like Bassett-Lowke, Hornby, Tri-ang, Exley, Wrenn and Leeds. The most famous producers in Germany included Bing, Bub, Georges Carette, Märklin, Fleischmann, Schöenner, Hess, LGB, Ernst Plank, Issmayer, Doll et Cie., Fandor, Arnold, and Trix/Trix Express. Major manufacturers in France included Jep, Jouef, Edobaud, Le Rapide, Charles Rossignol CR, and Vollon et Brun/VB. Other notable European brands include Italian manufacturers Elettren, Rivarossi and Lima, the Austrian producers Roco and Liliput, Spanish producer Paya, Swiss producers Hag and Fulgurex to name a few. The Soviet Union even produced collectible trains called Moskobel while Japan contributed their Seki/Sakai Trains, and Australia had Robilt.

Rare items abound at TCA Western Division meets. 3. Original price plays a large part in determining value. An old Lionel that originally sold for $50 might now be worth $100; but a Lionel of the same year that sold for $100 may be worth $1000 now.

4. ‘O’ and ‘O-27’ gauge trains (the larger size trains) are normally most collectible, followed by Standard, 2" and S gauge. HO and N scale trains are normally not collectible; they’re worth not more than half of their original retail value no matter how old they are  (exceptions are brass locomotives and some limited run plastics).

5. Condition means everything. An old Lionel train that looks great but won’t run is worth more than the same train in scruffy condition that runs like a Swiss watch.

Some trading of pre-war items at a meet 6. Having the original box the train came in will add tremendously to the train’s value - even if the box has seen better days. Original instruction sheets and packaging such as cardboard liners and spacers, or shipping cartons also helps to increase the value of toy trains and accessories.

7. The more original parts the train has, the higher its value will be. Some old trains might be worth restoring; the majority are not. A restored train will tend to be worth less than the same item in an untouched condition.

8. Major variations in the standard body types, exterior colors and the size, color or placement of graphics on toy trains often will increase the worth of those items. Major variations are those which can be readily seen, exist in sufficient numbers so as to be attainable, and are accepted as legitimate collectible variations by the majority of experienced collectors. Minor variations are not worth more than the normal production version.

9. Mail order, retail, hobby and antique store prices for antique toy trains will generally tend to be higher since these establishments have overhead that must be built into the price of the goods sold. Prices for similar items found at train shows, train club meets, swap meets, garage sales, estate slaes, auctions and on the Internet will be somewhat less, since there is less operating overhead for those sellers.

Resources for Determining Value

There are several sources that can be utilized for determining the value and worth of tinplate toy trains. This includes published price guides, on-line auctions and the TCA's "Interchange Point" published in the National Headquarters News.

Both Kalmbach Books and TM Books publish detailed price guides annually for all of the major collectible toy train gauges and manufacturers. American Flyer New Haven setThe Kalmbach books are called the "Greenberg Pocket Price Guides". The TM books are called "Price & Rarity Guides" and are written by long time train collectors and experts Tom McComas and James Tuohy. The values presented in these books are meant to serve only as a guide to collectors when buying and selling trains. These values are based on averaging the prices paid for train items bought and sold across the country at various train meets, private sales and auction houses.

On-line auction sites such as eBay and the TCA Mailing List & Electronic Interchange are excellent places to watch and track the prices being paid for various antique toy trains and toy train collectibles. These real-time Internet based auction transactions are the marketplace that establishes and demonstrates what the true worth of toy train collectibles are today.

TCA members receive the National Headquarters News 6 times annually as part of their regular membership. The Headquarters News contains the Interchange Point, which is a detailed listing of train items wanted or up for sale or trade by members of the Train Collectors Association. Members are permitted to submit up to 12 items for listing in each issue for free, as a service of the club. Like the on-line electronic Internet based venues, this published document's listings can be monitored and referenced for determining the value of similar train items.

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