Guidelines for Collectors

By Allan W. Miller, Freelance Writer

Some toy trains are quite valuable. That's one of the reasons why collecting Lionel trains is such a popular pastime for thousands. However, it's also true that some toy trains, regardless of age, have not increased significantly in value over the years. How, then, are you supposed to determine the present-day value of a train uncovered while rummaging through Grandma's attic, or one found stuffed in a box at a garage sale or flea market?

Experienced collectors generally rely on three sources of information:

  • Self-acquired knowledge resulting from active participation in the hobby.
  • Personal contacts with other experienced collectors and dealers acquired over time.
  • Annually published price guides that attempt to reflect current market conditions.

The novice collector, or someone who simply wants to determine the worth of a train that has been running beneath the family Christmas tree for generations, is somewhat at a disadvantage. He or she may lack long-term experience in train collecting, and probably hasn't developed contacts who might help answer questions. That being the case, the most viable alternative remains the published price guide.

Even experienced collectors can have a "love-hate" relationship with price guides. Some swear by them, and others swear at them! Usually, it's a matter of how "fair" they perceive the guides to be. Those wanting to sell trains, or hoping to see their investment increase in value year after year, are somewhat prone to disdain these books, reasoning that their items must surely be worth more than the "book price." Those wishing to buy toy trains are more prone to cite published prices, figuring that a higher asking price is akin to "gouging."

Always keep in mind that price guides for any kind of collectible are just that -- guides! They should never be taken as gospel! The true value of a toy train (or any other commodity) depends largely on the eagerness of a buyer to acquire the item, and on the willingness of a seller to part with it. A price guide provides nothing more than a reasonably reliable starting point for negotiation. None of the published price guides profess to offer more than a general reflection of market conditions existing prior to publication.

Remember, too, that the single most important factor influencing a given toy train's value is its appearance - that is, its condition. Collectors usually care less about how the item operates than about how it looks. So dents, scratches, faded paint, and damaged or missing parts all adversely affect this rating. The guides published today generally adhere to grading standards established by the Train Collector's Association (TCA), the largest organization of its type. These ratings, ranging from "Mint" to "Poor," are rigid standards, monitored and enforced by the TCA and followed by its members (see chart above).

Train Collector's Association
Grading Standards

 

Brand new, absolutely unmarred, all original, and unused.
Free of any blemishes, nicks, or scratches. Original condition throughout. Very little sign of use.
Minute nicks or scratches. No dents or rust.
Few scratches. Exceptionally clean. No dents or rust
Scratches, small dents, dirty.
Well-scratched, chipped, dented, rusted, or warped condition.
Beat up, junk condition, some usable parts.

Guide Books

  • Greenberg's Pocket Price Guide to Lionel Trains, 1901 -- 1999
    Published by Kalmbach Publishing Company. To order direct, call 1-800-533-6644. Or visit www.kalmbach.com.
  • TM's Lionel Illustrated Price & Rarity Guide, Vol. I: 1901 -- 1969
    TM's Lionel Illustrated Price & Rarity Guide, Vol. II: 1970 -- 1999
    Published by TM Books & Video. To order direct, call 1-800-892-2822. Or visit www.tmbv.com.

However, non-TCA collectors sometimes ignore these or other standards. All too frequently, an unwary novice is sold a "Mint" item that may actually be only "Like New." Admittedly, objectivity may be difficult when you're grading a treasured item that you want to sell. Nevertheless, the seller's credibility is on the line, and every collector is well advised to disregard sentimentality and err on the side of conservatism in grading each piece.

In the area of Lionel train collecting, there are two respected, affordable, and long-established guides that are considered to be the most comprehensive and authoritative: TM's Lionel Price & Rarity Guide (two volumes) and Greenberg's Pocket Price Guide to Lionel Trains. Both are updated and published annually, and each has, over many years, developed a devoted following.

Greenberg's Pocket Price Guide covers Lionel production from 1901 to the present, listed numerically by general "era" of production. This includes "prewar" (1901 to 1942), "postwar" (1945 to 1969), and "modern era" (1970 to present, sub-categorized to reflect ownership changes). The book covers Lionel's 2-7/8 inch, Standard, OO, O, and O27 gauge trains listing the most common version of each item, along with some significant variations. (For HO, see the Greenberg illustrated hardcovers.) To locate an item in the listings, you'll need to know the product number or the catalog number (sometimes they are not the same). Then it's a simple matter of looking it up in the body of the book (Greenberg's Guide does not have an index). The easiest number to find is most often the one printed on the side of the car, or on the locomotive's cab. It helps, of course, if you know the era when the item was produced, because then you won't have to search every section.

TM's Price and Rarity Guide offers additional features. There are, for example, chapters on complete sets, Lionel's HO product line, and Lionel's boxes (some of which are quite valuable today). In addition, the TM guide lists all major variations, assigns rarity-rating numbers to reflect scarcity, and employs trend arrows to help collectors identify changes in marketplace conditions. State-of-the-market reports written by prominent collectors and dealers are also provided. Items in the TM guide are listed by category or type, but an index at the back of the book also allows you to find items by catalog number. TM publishes two volumes: the first covers 1900 through 1969, the second covers 1970 to the present.

Regardless of which guide you select, be sure to read the introductory material explaining how the guide was compiled, how prices were determined and listed, and how to use the book. Always remember that the more sources you consult, the more informed your buying or selling decisions will be. It's really as simple as that! Just keep in mind that these are only guides, and that there really is no substitute for experience.

Allan W. Miller is Managing Editor of Antique Trader Books -- a leading publisher of collector price guides on a variety of topics, including toy trains. He has edited more than a dozen books relating to toy trains, and has authored more than 50 magazine articles on the subject.