Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lessons from York: What We Saw, Part 2: Exotica

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 t he 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.

As I explained in Part 1, shifting demographics seem to be affecting the toy train collecting world. I think it's safe to say that folks in their late 50s and early 60s are the last generations to receive a toy train set as a child. I think that also means they'll be the last generation to be driven by nostalgia to collect toy trains.

Prewar Flyer and More

In addition to seeing an extraordinary amount of American Flyer postwar trains (see Part 1), we also saw an interesting trend in prewar offerings. While Lionel was the dominant force in the toy train market in the 1920s and 1930s, they had plenty of competition. American Flyer was one, as was Ives and Dorfan (to name a few).

American Flyer, 1930. Yes, we saw these at York.

While most prewar collectors are primarily interested in Lionel, some have branched out to include examples of the other manufacturers in their collections. It's important to remember that Lionel still held the majority of the market, so most collectors who are trying to retrieve their childhood trains are seeking Lionel.

Why is that important to remember?

Because when it came to prewar trains, what we saw were an overwhelming amount of non-Lionel products. Ives standard gauge sets were readily available, as were American Flyer standard gauge and O gauge sets and rolling stock. And there was even a good selection of Dorfan rolling stock, too.
(Dorfan was never a very big company. The metal they used for their locomotive body castings had a flaw that caused them to break down and turn to dust after a few years. I'm sure many Dorfan sets were simply discarded after the engine disintegrated. Intact Dorfan locos are extremely rare, their rolling stock a little less so.)

Dorfan train sets. You can find the rolling stock, but not the locomotives.
Most of their cast metal bodies have turned to dust.
I believe the abundance of all of these (relatively) esoteric trains are also tied to the ageing of the collector market. If most collectors are interested in the toys of their youth, then those that fondly remember toys from the 1920s and 1930s would be in their 80s or older. Members of that group are most likely downsizing their households, or selling everything in preparation to moving to a nursing home -- or their heirs are settling their estate.

Ives was a luxury brand. It did not survive the Great Depression. Its name
and assets were purchased jointly by Lionel and American Flyer, who
kept the brand alive until inventory was used up.
Of course, for the latter two scenarios, everything must go. But if you're just downsizing, you'll probably want to keep the core of your collection -- even if it's just a piece or two. But it does mean the more unusual items -- especially those that lie outside your main interest -- can return to the market. So if you're primarily a Lionel collector, then you'll most likely keep your prized Lionel set (or locomotive) and let the American Flyer, Ives, Dorfan, et al, go.

That's my theory, anyway. Next time I'll share what we didn't see -- which also relates to the decline of the hobby.

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