Collecting Treasures: Have trains passed their station?

Dean Batson Blog

Once the most popular toy on the market, trains have gone from collectible to passé

The iconic toy train set went from being every boy’s dream to a collectible. Really, the 1970s saw the demand change as the train was no longer what every boy had to have. The crazes moved on to slot cars, action figures and then with the ’80s, video game systems and so on.

This transition period and change in demand from hot, to collectible, to passé is not surprising.

An icon

No one disputes the train as an icon of man’s coming of age, the Industrial Revolution and really a game changer. Just as influential it was in changing the world, it changed the toys that boys wanted.

Right after World War I, the train became the most popular toy in America. Companies like Lionel and American Flyer became household names. The Germans and most of Western Europe were already ahead of us with companies like Bing and Marklin being the leaders.

From 1930 until the late ’60s, the train set was a staple in every home and around just about everyone’s Christmas tree.

Interest wanes

As the toy’s new interest waned, the collector, nostalgic to recapture his childhood and now armed with a disposable income, began to pay record prices for the pre-war rare sets. As generations grew older and moved in to this collectible generation, they purchased the sets of their era. The 1950s and 1960s sets even gained respectability in the collectors’ eyes. You see, people seem to collect what they had as a child or what they couldn’t have or afford. Sometimes they collect just to capture that memory or share it with someone they love.

636081038144728350-lionel-hudson-train-set-2148ws-inc-box-circa-1950This circa 1950 Lionel Hudson train set sold at auction for $3,750 in 2014. (Photo: J. Levine Auction & Appraisal)

Flooded market

The end of this collectible phase comes when you have a perfect storm as we do now in the collectibles market. The generation doing the collecting now didn’t have train sets growing up. A few might remember their granddad’s, but the interest is not there.

This is coupled with the fact that Baby Boomers are selling their prized collections, and we will see the market getting flooded very soon. So you have limited demand and an abundance of supply. And, as you recall, these were the most popular toys, so a ton of them were made.

I have given the advice to my clients over the past five years to sell, and sell now, unless you are saving them for a few generations when interest may return, but you and I won’t be around to see it.


What’s hot now

Slot Cars, Hot Wheels, Star Wars, Legos and the like now have all the interest as it’s what the 1970s and 1980s generations played with. I love the train example and use it often as I feel it best illustrates everything in collectible trends.

You can exchange trains with classic cars, vintage radios, Barbie dolls, GI Joes and any other item with an iconic generational appeal. The demand will not last forever and the supply when liquidated is great.

Most people hold onto their collections too long, and while I understand the passion behind the collections, it’s important to recognize when the time is right to let go.

Josh Levine owns J. Levine Auction & Appraisal in Scottsdale. Contact: josh@jlevines.com or @jlevines1 on Twitter.