Monday, April 23, 2018

Lessons from York - A Sea Change?

At one time, this volume was worth
over $100 - if you could find it. Now
it's readily available for $10.
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.

What we saw

Most of what we saw at the April 2018 meet seemed to suggest that the market for vintage toy trains was still shrinking. If anything, the decline of the hobby (at least in its current form) seems to have accelerated.

One big library sale

Throughout the years a number of hobby-related reference books have been published. Because of their highly specialized subject matter, these books tended to have very short print runs. The better ones seldom came on the market. These were books collectors would use -- and use often.

Out of print for years, and now back on the market.
This meet we saw several tables with piles of reference books. These weren't factory remainders. Each table usually had just one copy of a particular title. They just had a lot of titles.

Why? Reference works are one of the last things to leave a collection. Even after the objects have been sold, you can still enjoy looking at their color photos in books.

I think these books are the final liquidation of collections. The subjects of most of these books were for trains made between 1900 and the Second World War. This was the focus of the first and second generation of collectors, those who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s.

The past few years I've seen evidence of these collectors downsizing. I believe this flood of books represents estate sales.

Lionel and American Flyer HO

In the 1950s, HO scale was hot. And both Lionel (O-gauge) and American Flyer (S-gauge) started to lose market share. Both companies tried to enter the HO market, and both were unsuccessful.

This did not end well. 
This did not end well, either.
Which made their HO trains somewhat rare, but not especially desirable. Except for a certain type of collector.

Most collectors have very specific interests, but there are some who want it all. For a hard-core Lionel post-war collector, that means not just having every O-gauge train set the company produced from 1948-1970.

It means owning every rail car, every accessory, and every esoteric item Lionel produced, like their chemistry sets, science kits -- and HO scale trains.

The current active generation of collectors grew up in the 1950s. These are the people who would acquire Lionel and American Flyer HO trains to fill out their collections.

But this is also the generation that's just entering retirement. And that means downsizing. The easiest way to begin downsizing a collection is to get rid of the outliers. And if you're a Lionel O-gauge or American Flyer S-gauge postwar collector, these companies' HO trains are just that.

A changing hobby

So if the last remnants of the old collectors is now hitting the market, and the current generation is starting to downsize, is this the end? I don't think so. I think, rather, these are signs of change -- as I'll explain in Part 2.

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