Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lessons from York: What We Didn't See: Variety

Dream on, kid. There was no Dorfan
to be found at this show.
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.

An amazing compendium

This particular event has a decades-long history, enjoying continual growth (some years dramatically) up through the early 2000s. When I first started attending, it was a veritable bazaar of all things toy trains. All the major manufacturers have represented -- Lionel, American Flyer, and Marx -- as well as the second tier toy companies that had fallen by the wayside, such as Ives, Dorfan, and Kusan. You could also find toy trains from all eras, from the 1910s up through the present.

Naturally, the very rare and/or very expensive items were not on as many tables as the more commonplace toy trains. But if you went through the entire show, you could pretty much see first-hand an example of pretty much every line offered by every company.

Lionel's top-of-the-line trains and accessories from 1928. Most were
MIA for this show.

A substantial imbalance

The mix was always slightly different, which is what this series has been about -- trying to determine the reasons behind the ebb and flow of an item's availability. This show had its standout items, but as I explained in yesterday's post (What We Saw) there was a serious imbalance. Rather than there being a wide variety of eras and brands with a few things seemingly more plentiful, this time there were eras and brands that were ubiquitous, and some that weren't there at all.

Big, beautiful Lionel postwar 0-gauge sets. Those F3s were
everywhere a few years ago --almost non-existent at this show. 

Where's the good stuff?

I think the same theory explains what we saw and what we didn't. The graying of the toy train collector population means more estate liquidations and more downsizing. Most collections that are part of estates are handled by auction houses. And that makes sense. Heirs with no knowledge or interest in toy trains can simply let the auction house collect it all and liquidate it. If the heirs do their homework, they'll place the items with a house specializing in vintage toys. And notices from those houses I see with increasing frequency, announcing the sale of another "legendary" collection.

Those super-collections don't show up at the dealer tables at York. But what does show up are the results of gradual downsizing -- particularly for said dealers. When anyone downsizes, they discard the least valuable and desirable, and just keep a few valuable items.

At York, we didn't see many valuable items. No top-of-the-line standard gauge sets, desirable both for the quality of their craftsmanship and their rarity; no "girl's train," Lionel's Edsel; very few postwar Lionel GG1s, Santa Fe streamliners, Trainmasters, and other extremely popular trains and accessories; nothing above mid-level products. And usually, the more desirable a piece was in the overall hierarchy, the worse it's condition.

Lionel's Girl's Train (top) was a really bad idea that didn't sell well.
Its rarity and kitsch appeal makes it valuable today -- but a no-show at this show.


Most of what we saw were trains in the low to mid-range of collectability -- the very part of a collection that's easiest to let go. And the more collectible pieces we saw were in average or below average condition. If you've upgraded, then you'd want to get rid of those pieces. My personal theory is that if you have extremely limited display room, you're not going to waste it on scratched or rusty toys. So even if they're of higher collectability, if you don't have the shelf space, they've got to go.

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