This is a good time to be or to become a collector of vintage toy trains, because, judging from the recent spate of record-breaking prices that have been paid, the market has become rife with once and future prized possessions from the decades prior to World War II. “It’s not unusual to sell a train for $100,000,” says Greg Stout, the 36-year-old founder and owner of Stout Auctions, a 13-year-old Williamsport, Ind., house that specializes in toy trains. In addition to conducting auctions, Stout also brokers private sales. “It happens every other month now,” he says of six-figure private sales. “But five years ago, it just didn’t happen.”
The current sales action cannot be credited to a single factor, but mortality plays a role. Some leading train collectors have died in recent years, releasing their treasures to the market for the first time in decades. Among them was Disney animator Ward Kimball. Noel Barrett, a Carversville, Pa., auctioneer who specializes in toys, dispersed Kimball’s collection in two sales, one in November 2004 and one in May 2005, which together reaped $5 million. Two trains made circa 1900 for the American market by Märklin, an influential German toy train maker that has been in business since 1859, sold separately for the identical sum of $71,500, one to a German collector and the other to an American. The cover item for Barrett’s second Kimball sale catalog, a 29-inch-long, 19-inch-tall train station by Märklin, set a record for a model train station at auction when an anonymous American bidder paid $110,000 for it, almost triple its highest presale estimate of $40,000.
December 2004 was a busy time for Stout’s auction house. In that month it sold, for $77,000, a Lionel prototype train that sat on company founder Joshua Lionel Cowen’s desk, and it also sold a single Lionel car for $73,700. Business is so strong that in November, the company opened a second auction facility in Hermitage, Pa. Stout is planning an all-Lionel auction for December 9 and 10 at the Indiana location. It will feature more than 300 trains, all of which remain in their original boxes.
In London, the South Kensington branch of Christie’s will hold its 20th annual Trains Galore sale on December 18 and 19. Past editions have produced auction records, including the 2001 sale at which an unusually large 1906 Märklin train that had been made for a New York F.A.O. Schwarz store fetched £113,750, or more than $200,000, a record price for a toy train at auction and also a record for any type of European toy at auction.
Vintage toy trains are apt to be in good condition because they were expensive when originally purchased—a Lionel 2345 Western Pacific F3 sold in 1952 for $49.95, or the modern equivalent of $355.30—and thus were less likely to be subjected to the rigors of rough play. But the trains’ pristine condition may be only part of the appeal that compels collectors to pay ever-increasing prices for them. “It’s men not growing up,” offers Christie’s Hugo Marsh. “I think it’s as simple as that. I’ve seen men get down on their knees and play with trains as enthusiastically at 65 as they did at 5.”
Noel Barrett, 215.297.5109, www.noelbarrett.com
Christie’s, +44.207.930.6074, www.christies.com
Stout Auctions, 765.764.6901, www.stoutauctions.com