Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lessons from York - A Skewed View 1

Dad and I are back from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. 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 always, although the particulars of these posts are about toy trains, that's not what they're really about. I'm convinced that the behaviors of collectors are universal. And that's what I'm interested in.

The York train show is a good place to spot trends. It's one of the biggest shows in the hobby, drawing 13,000 - 15,000 attendees, and has hundreds of tables. It also has most of the major manufacturer's exhibit as well. For a company like Lionel, York is their Consumer Electronics Show.

Most of the items for sale we see show after show -- but there are always a few items present in unusually large quantities. Why?

This time, there were three things we saw on table after table.

A Lionel Standard Gauge No. 6 Locomotive, ca. 1906

Passing of the guard

This time we saw a lot of very early Lionel locomotives (about 1906-1915). Now, these are fairly rare, to begin with, and it's remarkable just to see one or two Lionel steam locomotives from that ear at York. This time, though, we saw dozens. The prices were quite high, but (at least for this show) they were available.


There's a common theme in toy collecting -- many collectors either want the toys they had as children or the toys they didn't get as children. So part of the desirability of an item is tied to a certain generation.

Toys from the early 1900's were sought after by the generation of collectors that founded the TCA in the 1950's. At this point, most of them have either passed on or broken up housekeeping. Which means these items are coming back on the market. Perhaps this mass appearance of rare, early toys is actually marking the end of an era.

Lionel standard passenger set: (from  top to bottom):
311 passenger car, 310 baggage car, and the 312
observation car. Not rare, but quite nice.

Next round of cuts

We also saw an unusual amount of  Lionel 310, 311, and 312 Standard Gauge passenger cars. These are attractive cars, but about mid-range in terms of desirability and value. And they come from a later era than the No. 6 steam locomotive pictured above. These two-tone cars were sold as sets from 1924 through 1939 when the Standard Gauge era ended.

There are a lot of these out there, and we usually see a few sets at York. But this time we saw an unusually high number of them.


If our theory about youthful nostalgia is right, then most of the owners of these sets are now in their 70's and 80's. Some sets will come on the market through estate sales, but there's a good chance that most are being culled from collections as the owners downsize. After all, if you're moving to assisted living, and only have room for a few pieces, you're going to keep only the top-of-the-line sets (which these aren't).

A year and a half ago a lot of sets come on the market (A Setting for Sets) and I thought it was for this same reason. Perhaps these two-tone passenger cars are just part of the next round of items to get rid of?

Lionel O-gauge postwar (1949-1955) F3 diesels,
originally sold as a pair.

A new generation retires?

The third thing we saw an exceptionally high number of were Lionel O-Gauge postwar F3 diesels. After World War II, Lionel resumed toy train production with a completely new line of products. Gone were the toy-like metal locos and rolling stock (like the examples above). Instead, Lionel used injection-molded plastic to create realistic scale and semi-scale models of real trains.

The most popular locomotives were the F3 diesels. The Santa Fe livery was a huge it, and thousands were sold between 1948 and 1955. The Santa Fe F3s are actively sought after, but because there were so many made, they're always readily available (for a price).

Seeing the success of the Santa Fe F3, Lionel offered the model in different livery, with less success. The New York Central version also ran from 1948  - 1955, but didn't sell as well as the Santa Fe. Today it's a much rarer locomotive, and I seldom see more than few at any York meet. Until this time. Everyone seemed to have them, and -- curiously -- not just the originals, but also the reproductions made by Williams and MTH as well.


Collectors who were kids in the early 50's are now hitting retirement age. Perhaps this is the beginning of the downsizing process for them. Why are the reproductions coming on the market? it's not for the reason you might think. Williams and MTH products are clearly marked, so there's little chance of them being sold as originals.

Rather, I think it has to do with a common practice among collectors who operate layouts. Often, a collector will keep the original item on the shelf for display, and run a reproduction on the layout. It keeps the value of the original high because moving parts don't get worn further, less chance for accidents that can chip paint or break delicate plastic parts and so on. Also, the reproductions are usually more reliable for operation.

My guess is that some of these collectors are moving into smaller homes, and taking down their operating layouts. And with neither shelf space nor layout, they no longer need the originals or the reproductions.

Something to support my assumption: in April I remarked on the scarcity of Industrial Rail pieces (What We Didn't See). These pieces have virtually no collectible value but are great for operating layouts. This time we saw a good deal of Industrial Rail rolling stock for sale -- all going for around $10 a piece. Another sign of layouts being disassembled?

Next: Lessons from York - A Skewed View 2; what we didn't see

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