Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lessons from York - Culling Collectibles

Once again, Dad and I journeyed to the TCA Eastern Division Toy Train Show at York, PA. 13,000+ attendees, and an interesting mixture of  trade show and flea market. One large hall has all the current manufacturers of toy trains and accessories, such as such as Lionel, MTH, and Atlas. It's a great place to see the latest and pick up a few things for layouts.

The remaining six buildings are filled with folks selling used and antique toy trains and toy train-related items. Each time we go, Dad and I notice trends in what's available. And each time we try to figure out why there's a preponderance of just a few things.

This time, the halls seemed to be awash with three things: Lionel Madison passenger cars, Lionel motorized units, and low-end train sets, both pre- and post-war (WWII that is). Why?

A set of Madison cars from 1949.
Lionel's Madison passenger cars

Lionel first issued these passenger cars in 1948, the first year they returned to full toy train production after making nautical navigation equipment for the war. The cars were modeled on the Pullman passenger cars that were common on most of the major railroads of the day. The first set offered had cars named Madison, Irvington, and Manhattan. The Madison name stuck as the car type's designation with collectors.

Although the heavy plastic cars were discontinued in 1950, they didn't go away. Different owners of Lionel (General Mills, Richard Kughn,  and the current Lionel, LCC) used the dies to offer their own version of the cars cast in lighter plastic. Most of them were quite colorful, differing from the somber brown of the original.

At this show, we saw Madison cars from all eras. Often offered in groups, but seldom as part of complete sets. Since the cars were often coupled with some of Lionel's most popular locomotives like the GG1 and the scale and semi-scale Hudson, it gave me an idea as to why we were seeing just the cars come back on the market.

The No. 68 Executive Inspection Car. In the catalog illustrations
it looked sleek and low-slung -- unlike the actual product.
Lionel's motorized units

During the 1950's Lionel had a slew of four-wheel motorized units. There was a line of small gas turbine model switch engines. There was an executive inspection car, as well as a self-powered snow plow.

 Lionel also created a trolly car that used the same basic design. Unlike the models mentioned above, the trolly had a bumper that caused it to reverse direction when it hit an obstacle. So you could have it go back and forth on a long section of straight track. They also made a gang car with the same mechanism.

While these were interesting items visually, with the exception of the switch engines you couldn't really do anything with them but run them around the track. The trolleys and gang cars were often set up on a separate section of track on layouts, and because they didn't need a turn around loop, you could place them just about anywhere. The snow plows and the inspection cars? Problematic.

And they don't really have much of an appeal on their own, either. Most collectors acquire them if they're interested in having everything Lionel offered during a particular year. Which also gave me a an idea as to why we were seeing them again.

Lionel used "Winner Toy" for their low-end sets in the
early 1930's so they wouldn't dilute their brand.
Low-end sets

In a previous show we noticed that sets were everywhere. Sets in their original boxes, often with all of the track, the transformer, and any accessories that came with them. This time it was a little different. This time we saw many sets, dating from the 1920's through the 1970's. And not just Lionel sets, either. We saw offerings from Marx, American Flyer, Bing, and Dorfan. But there was a common thread.

A vast majority of these sets (as compared to the mix from previous shows) were entry-level sets. So we saw Lionel Winner sets from the 1930's, inexpensive stripped-down trains that offered just the basics. Marx always owned the low-end market, and their sets were everywhere. The Bing, Flyer and Dorfan sets, while somewhat rare and therefore pricey, were also nevertheless mostly the entry-level products from the companies.

Cutting the wheat from the chaff

I think the common thread was space. My theory is that all of these things were appearing because folks were thinning out their collections.

Madison cars take up a lot of shelf space -- especially if you have a set with four or five of them. If you're only interested in the locomotive, why keep the cars? Motorized units don't have strong appeal -- they're just small things that can clutter up a collection. So why keep them around? And sets with their original boxes are difficult to store. If you have some of the best examples, why keep the low-end ones around?

I don't think that folks are getting rid of these things as they downsize to move into assisted living or retirement homes. The average postwar Lionel collector is in his mid- to late-sixties and not ready for that type of move yet. Rather, I think that these collectors have reached the limit of their available space, and are starting to take a hard look at their collections. Do they really need one of everything, or can they divest themselves of marginal items to make room for more of what they really want?

That's my guess, anyway. I'd love to hear from folks in other fields of collecting to know if they see a similar trend. While the subject of our hobbies might be different, they're still enjoyed by people whose behaviors are pretty consistent.

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