Collector's Corner: Where to Buy Toy Trains
By Charles Conley
My wife Esther and I had a yard sale last fall. As an experiment I put out a few Lionel train items and some HO gauge locomotives. We did not mention trains in the newspaper ad, so I wasn't expecting much, but I was curious to see what would happen. I marked the cars and engines just a little above what I believed to be a fair price based on the Greenberg Price Guide and the condition of the individual items. I figured that if someone wanted to negotiate price, I could come down a little and still get enough to make the sale worthwhile.
During the entire sale only two people appeared to notice the trains. One was a Russian who was still having trouble with his English. He seemed to be mostly interested in a transformer that I had marked "Not for Sale." The transformer was only to demonstrate that the engines were working. He didn't buy anything.
The other person was a gentleman who quietly came over to me and said, "You know, I think you would do better if you sold these on eBay." As best as I can remember, I thanked him for the advice and mumbled something about it being an experiment. Of course he was right. Based on this experience and from observing people at other yard sales, I can say that people who shop at yard sales, at least in our neighborhood, are more interested in household items, tools, books, certain children's toys, and maybe jewelry. So much for toy trains at a yard sale, unless they are really, really cheap.
This experience got me thinking about how many ways there are to buy and sell toy trains. I am referring to trains that are collectible or are likely to become collectible, not the toy trains that you might typically find at a department store or discount store. I came up with about twelve ways. Some overlap a little; some have variations. Maybe a reader will think of something I missed?
Internet auctions need no explanation here as I am sure everyone reading this is familiar with eBay.
Live auctions break down into two types: first what I call "local auctions" where most of the bidders live relatively close to where the auction is held. Then the "high-end auctions" held by internationally known firms in places like New York City. Some local auctioneers will wait until they have a sufficient number of toy train items, then hold a train-only auction. Others will mix trains, furniture and other collectibles in a single auction.
One finds out about these events by reading train magazines, antique newspapers, regular newspapers, or by simply checking the Yellow Pages for "Auctioneers." A few will mail out postcards only when they have toy trains at a coming auction. High-end auctions seem appropriate for very rare trains. Some early 1900s Lionel 2-7/8 inch gauge trains were sold at a Connecticut auction last year for around $13,000.
Dealers include those with "brick and mortar" stores and Internet sites, although many dealers now use both methods. Not all dealers sell old or antique trains, but many do. I have also noticed that some dealers sell trains on eBay. This is not such a bad way for a collector to buy trains, because quite a few dealers will guarantee their trains, even those sold on eBay. Sellers who indicate TCA (Train Collectors Association) membership on an eBay page generally take pride in accurately describing the condition of the trains they are selling.
Antique Shops don't seem as a likely place to find toy trains, but I have stopped at multi-dealer antique shops in New York, Indiana, and elsewhere where nice trains were for sale.
Estate Sales are a possible source, but in my experience, most dealers holding such sales seem to prefer putting the trains up for auction. Possibly this is because of the difficulty pricing toy train items.
Flea Markets occasionally have trains, but good values are rare. I have sometimes found tracks and transformers at flea markets that looked OK. A word of caution: transformers, with the exception of Lionel "ZW" transformers, are generally not repairable. It is a good idea to be certain that a transformer is working correctly, the knobs turn smoothly and so on, before buying one at a flea market or yard sale.
Train Shows and Train Meets deserve some explanation. Train shows are held with the main objective being to promote interest in the hobby. You can find out about them by reading toy train magazines. They are always open to the public; they always have operating layouts; they always have dealers present; and they are generally held at large facilities.
Train meets are held by clubs as an opportunity for members to buy, sell, or trade with other members. Train meets may or may not be open to the public; they may or may not have operating layouts; they may or may not have dealers present; and they are usually held at small facilities. You find out about them by joining a train club.
Different clubs have different methods for helping their members buy, sell, and trade. Some clubs have regularly scheduled train meets; some publish a list of items either wanted or for sale in a newsletter; others might make this information available on a Web site. In any case, this is a great way to meet people who are interested in the hobby.
About the author:
Chuck Conley, a member of the Train Collectors Association, is Digital Equipment early retiree. He has had an interest in Lionel trains since he got his first set at the age of 10. Put on the "back burner" for many years, his hobby was rekindled about ten years ago when he and his wife Esther began attending auctions in the MetroWest Boston area and sometimes found very desirable trains. Although he admits that some of the new trains are impressive, he still favors the postwar variety, including his first Lionel. Chuck and Esther live in Framingham, Massachusetts, and often work together putting things on eBay (not just trains). Their eBay ID is "nepacer". Feel free to write him at nepacer @ aol.com.
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