Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Lessons from York - What we didn't see: standard collectables

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them. 

Last post I discussed what we saw an unusually large number of. And most of it had to do with that sweet spot of toy collection -- items that were made during the pre-teen years of the collector. And with the majority of said collectors in their late fifties-early sixties, trains from the mid-1960's have become very desirable.

While quite common in their day, these Lionel standard gauge locos
were hard to find this time around.

Standard gauge is no longer the standard

When the TCA was founded, the members were mostly interested in toy trains from 1900-1920. At that time, a "standard gauge" was developed. The trains were big -- standard gauge track is about 2-1/8" wide from outside rail to outside rail. By contrast, in HO gauge the rails are about 0.64 of an inch apart. Standard gauge lasted through 1929, and for a long time standard gauge trains were highly desirable.

Over time, the demand has remained high for the few top of the line examples (mostly from 1928-1929), while slowly declining for the rest. This time around we saw only two examples of those highly desirable pieces, and a dearth of other standard gauge. But then, the demographic that most wanted those pieces has passed on.

Hopefully the days of seeing
Lionel MPC boxes stacked
like cord wood is over.


Lionel was bought by General Mills in 1969 and reintroduced under the MPC brand in 1970. Through 1985 the company seemed to endlessly recycle old Lionel products with new graphics. While the original Lionel Corp. made products for boys to play with, MPC focused on those grown-up boys who wanted to collect. They turned out all kinds of "collect them all" sets that were eagerly snapped up by collectors knowing their retirements were now secure.

Not so. MPC Lionel kept margins high by skimping on quality. Diecast metal was replaced with plastic, plastic replaced with cheaper, thinner plastic, and so on. For a long time, the prices on most MPC products remained flat.

And for years we would see tables with MPC mint-in-the-box products stacked high.

A Lionel MPC state box car. The idea was to collect
all 13 (one for each of the original 13 colonies)
plus the loco plus the caboose to make a special
train that looked ridiculous.
But not this time. There were a few items (I did see two Coke sets -- priced at $150-$165), but not many. Where did all the MPC Lionel items go? I'm not sure. Maybe the vendors finally got tired of lugging them to and from the shows.

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