Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Lessons from York - A mixed message

Dad and I just returned from our semi-annual trip to York, PA for the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet. Now whether you're interested in trains or not, please read on, because I'm asking for your input.

In the past I've tried reading what happened at the meet as an economic indicator. In the fall, there were a lot of abandoned tables, suggesting either money was too tight for vendors to commit, or perhaps had committed but didn't have the funds to travel (the show pulls attendees and vendors primarily from the East Coast, but some travel cross country to attend).

The 1931 Lionel Catalog featured an evergreen trophy item -- the
standard gauge State Set (the passenger train in the foreground). The
remaining items pictured all either merely desirable or highly desirable.

This time virtually all the tables were full and attended. So perhaps a segment of the economy has picked up.What interested me, though -- and where I'm looking for insight -- is what we saw at the show. Although toy trains have been around for more than a century, what shows up on the market tends to run in cycles. At least in this hobby, many try to collect what they fondly remember from their childhood. So as time passes, the desirability (and value) of items rise and fall in a fairly predictable fashion.

At York, though, we saw a lot of something that I consider a trophy item. That is, an object that was unsuccessful in the marketplace initially, which meant very few were ever in circulation. This makes the object extremely rare, which drives up its value. And while a trophy item still isn't desirable on its own merits, its rareness makes it a crown jewel in any collection. For cars, I think of the Edsel. For stamps, the air mail upside down plane. The thing that lets someone say, "Oh yes, I'm a serious collector. Why I even have a [trophy item]!"

In this case, it was the Lionel Girl's Train. (pictured right, from the Toy Metal Museum) That's right. In 1957, Lionel decided to market to girls and offered a train in pastel shades. It bombed. Girls interested in trains wanted the same ones the boys did.

As time passed, the Girl's Train became a trophy item -- something no truly complete collection could be without. Although to my knowledge no one ever wanted one to actually run, even when it was new.

At York this time we saw no less than ten Girl's Train sets for sale, plus several more partial sets and some individual pieces. Why is this coming back on the market now -- and en masse? Collectors of postwar Lionel were the most interested in the Girl's Train, and that population is just reaching retirement age. The next generation is focused on the offerings of the mid- to late sixties.

The value of the set remains quite high. So are people selling to raise cash? Are they trimming their collections in preparation for moving to smaller homes? Or has the bloom finally fallen off this rose?

So my question is this: what's happening with your hobby's trophy items? Are they showing up in the marketplace? Has the perceived desirability of them changed?

I'd be interested in learning if this is something unique to the small world of toy trains, or part of a larger phenomenon.

- Ralph


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