The December Express
Martin Folb was driving from Los Angeles to New York to attend a convention on cut glass, one of his collecting pursuits, when he decided to take a detour to see an antique toy train set that was destined for auction. Folb had been spellbound by trains as a child, acquiring his first Lionel set at age 7 and joining the Train Collectors Association at 10, but he drifted away from them when he went to college, as so many youthful collectors do. But on that cross-country road trip, going five miles out of his way to have a peek turned into four hours of studying and photographing the lot: a 1936 special-order train set by Lionel in near-mint condition with its original packaging.
"I made a determination that the only way I was not going to get this set was if Bill Gates was in the audience and he wanted it," Folb recalls.
On the big day of the auction, in fall 2006, Folb began bidding by phone from his home in Los Angeles, with Gary Zippie of Stout Auctions stationed on the other end of the line. Bids surged past the lot’s $150,000 reserve and powered toward an East Coaster’s pledge of $225,000, which the man had placed in the belief that the price was unlikely to fly higher than that. Now that man was desperately trying to get online to increase his bid—but he had not preregistered, which meant he could not commit to a sum that exceeded $15,000.
Zippie and Folb grasped the situation instantly: If Folb raised his bid to $230,000, the train was his. Folb sat and sweated. "Gary said, ‘Take your time.’ I thought about it for two minutes," Folb says, but the outcome was never truly in doubt. "I had seen it. I had fallen in love with it, and I decided I had to have it."
Folb got it, for a $230,000 hammer price that, with premium, totaled $253,000. And he has been generous with it, showing the set periodically at local train collectors’ events. The 62-year-old research physicist now owns 40 to 50 other train sets, as well as several hundred accessories such as station houses, lampposts, and the like. While the quality of his collection sets him apart, his ardor does not. The Train Collectors Association, which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, counts around 28,000 dues-paying members. And though the train set is no longer the must-have Christmas toy, December remains a fine time to seek one at auction. Noel Barrett’s annual fall auction of antique toys, including several choice trains, is scheduled for December 5 and 6 in New Hope, Pa. Stout Auctions, located in Williamsport, Ind., will host a toy train sale on December 6. And Special Auction Services, based in Newbury, England, holds its annual Trains Galore sale on December 10 and 11.
Just as Folb had drifted away from trains as a college student, he found himself drifting back to them 10 to 12 years ago, as a grown man, for a grown-up reason. "When I was a little boy, every association I ever had with these trains was nothing but happy, positive memories," he says. "How many things in your life generate happy, positive memories?"
(Continues on next page...)