Q: Ray, while cleaning out my late uncle's attic, I found his stash of O gauge trains that I plan to run beneath my Christmas tree this year. Many of them say "Lionel" on the sides. Please tell me what they are worth. J.D., CA
A: During the holiday season, many electric trains are dug out of storage. Some are pressed into use around the tree, while others become the focus of the eternal question, "How much is my old train worth?"
First, the largest market for used toy trains exists for those in O, S, and Standard gauge. If you have old HO, N, or Large scale trains(with the exception of LGB and Marklin trains), there is at best a smaller collector's market for them. Unless you are lucky enough to find the "right buyer," or have a very specific train that collectors are just drooling over, the resale value is minimal.
Second, do some research to develop a basic understanding of what you own. Keep in mind that price is tied directly to demand, modified greatly by condition and scarcity. Most toy trains were produced in huge quantities; so not all old trains are necessarily scarce or sough after by collectors. Still, almost everything has some value, even if only for its parts.
Locate the manufacturer's part number on each of your pieces; it's usually stamped on the side or undercarriage. From this you'll be able to find out the approximate years of production and estimated value by checking reference books.
Kalmbach Publishing Co. produces inexpensive pocket price guides under the Greenberg name. For more information go to KalmbachHobbyStore.com or call Kalmbach's customer service at 800-533-6644.
Keep in mind that the values listed in the guides are not binding, but rather rules-of-thumb often based on reported sales during the previous year. Another current source of price information is eBay. Search for your item and see if someone else has one for sale. Remember that the item is being sold at auction so the price may reflect the whims of the bidders more than the actual value.
Condition is everything. Cosmetic appearance is often more important to collectors than whether an item works. Every chip, nick, dirt smudge, and fingerprint will be duly noted. If you have the original boxes, packing materials, and instruction sheets, these will add to the value.
Third, if your collection is large, you'll need a dealer or experienced collector to help assess its quality. Check the ads in CTT for dealers. Check your phone book under "Hobbies."
If you sell to a dealer you'll be getting the wholesale price. I would suggest you consider keeping the trains in the family or giving them to a child you know. Collecting and operating toy trains makes a great hobby. Even if your items are only average, pass them along.