Sunday, October 21, 2007

Rekindling the passion of collecting

I just returned from the TCA train meet in York, Pennsylvania. This isn't a post about the joys of toy train collecting and operation (TCA has that covered). It's rather about the interface between the real and virtual world.

As I walked from table to table there was a common thread to the conversations. Ebay was changing the dynamics of collecting -- and impacting the sales at shows such as the York meet. Ken's commented on how Ebay can erode the passion of collecting, and the concerns expressed at York ran along similar lines.

I've said many times -- both in this blog and in everyday conversation -- that the Internet is not the "be all and end all." As sophisticated as online interactivity has become, the real world can provide even richer experiences.

And collecting is a good example. While I'm talking about toy trains here, it could easily be stamps, dolls, baseball cards, snuff boxes or anything. IMHO, Ebay is good for finding exactly what you want. But how do you know what you want? Or even what's available?

One of the best ways is to go to a meet. Wandering the isles you'll get a general feel for what's common and what's rare. You'll also see first-hand the subtle differences in condition that can greatly affect an item's value. Yes, Ebay listings often have pictures, but sometimes that's not enough.

Take, for example, a Dorfan locomotive. Dorfan, a toy train manufacturer of the 1920's, made die-cast locomotives with flawed alloys that caused them to flake and crumble into dust over time (some started the process within two years of manufacture), which makes Dorfan engines extremely rare. Any evidence of flaking or cracking can be a sign of trouble, and makes a huge difference in the value. Your eye can see things the camera doesn't -- and sometimes those cracks appear only on the underside, or inside the casting. Someone would have to post dozens of closeups on Ebay to approximate the information you can glean in a careful five-minute scrutiny.

And while eBay is searchable, you have to type in something to get somewhere. At a meet, I can wander the aisles and find stuff I didn't even know existed (and, therefore, can't search for online). This time, I went looking for a few accessories for the layout. Nothing in particular, just something that would fit in at a good price. It took a while, but I found it.

Even if I hadn't, it would have been a good show. I saw some very rare pieces first hand, some interesting oddball items, and met some great people and renewed some acquaintances, besides.

The Internet is a great resource, but it's not the only resource. If you're into collecting, then really get into collecting and get away from the screen once in a while.

- Ralph

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