Like most toy-train enthusiasts, Chuck Brasher started collecting as a child--when his father gave him a 1937 American Flyer set. Today, the 54-year-old building contractor has an enviable collection of pre-World War II electric trains--estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. His Grass Valley (Calif.) attic showroom is a favorite among the neighborhood kids.
Collecting antique trains is anything but kid stuff today. It's a serious hobby with investment potential--for a growing number of adults bent on recapturing childhood memories. "It's definitely tied to nostalgia," says Dick Christianson, editor of Classic Toy Trains magazine. "I know very few collectors who didn't have a Lionel or American Flyer as a kid."
Indeed, it's especially the kids who grew up in the 1950s, the golden days of toy trains, who fueled the first boom in the '70s and continue to feed the market. The membership in one national club, the Train Collectors Assn. (TCA), has gone from 4,000 in 1971 to 26,000 today.
RARE MINTS. Nostalgia aside, toy trains have value because they just don't make them the way they used to. The workmanship and engineering that went into an old tin-plate train would be too costly today. And as these old toys become harder to find, dealers say the prices will keep inching up.
But you had better have patience. Toy-train collecting is more than an investment, says Brasher. It's a labor of love. "You can't go buy a bunch of trains, hold onto them for six months, and then expect to make any money," says Ed Prendeville, owner of the Train Collector's Warehouse in Parsippany, N.J. "It's not like the commodities market. But if you build your collection over time, you might not make out too bad."
Typically, postwar sets are the most in demand, because they were the ones that avid collectors, mostly men now in their 40s and 50s, had as children. Naturally, sets fetch the highest prices when they're in mint condition, in the original box. "The price appreciation has been highest for items in absolutely perfect condition," says Prendeville. Of course, these are the hardest items to find, because few people bought a train set and left it untouched for 30 years. These were toys, after all.
But say you found an unused Canadian Pacific passenger-train set, made in the mid-1950s by Lionel Trains. Five years ago, it might
have fetched $5,000. Today, it would go for $7,000.
Condition, along with rarity, dictates how valuable your collection becomes. For example: In 1929, Lionel bought part of its bankrupt rival, Ives, and for several years made Ives trains under the Lionel name. One Ives set made in 1932 by Lionel would have sold for less than $50 then--but would fetch about $10,000 today in mint condition.
When you start collecting, "go slow and be careful," warns Tony Hay, a Huntington (W.Va.) dealer. He says the best deals are at the private meets of the TCA (717 687-8623) and the Toy Train Operating Society (818 578-0673). The truly obsessed congregate in York, Pa., twice a year--in April and October--for a three-day event sponsored by the TCA.
You must be a member of a club to attend its meets, but it's worth the $20 to $22 in annual dues to join. Mingling with other collectors is the fastest way to learn. Avoid buying trains at auctions and antique shows. Toy trains have many nuances, and a dealer who doesn't specialize in them may charge too much.
Many collectors find they're hooked for life. Dealer Pren-deville recalls a man in Utah who sold his entire collection for about $280,000. "I filled a U-Haul and drove away with it all," he says. But only a couple of months went by before the collector was buying trains again.