Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lessons from York: What We Didn't See: Variety

Dream on, kid. There was no Dorfan
to be found at this show.
Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby. 

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

An amazing compendium

This particular event has a decades-long history, enjoying continual growth (some years dramatically) up through the early 2000s. When I first started attending, it was a veritable bazaar of all things toy trains. All the major manufacturers have represented -- Lionel, American Flyer, and Marx -- as well as the second tier toy companies that had fallen by the wayside, such as Ives, Dorfan, and Kusan. You could also find toy trains from all eras, from the 1910s up through the present.

Naturally, the very rare and/or very expensive items were not on as many tables as the more commonplace toy trains. But if you went through the entire show, you could pretty much see first-hand an example of pretty much every line offered by every company.

Lionel's top-of-the-line trains and accessories from 1928. Most were
MIA for this show.

A substantial imbalance

The mix was always slightly different, which is what this series has been about -- trying to determine the reasons behind the ebb and flow of an item's availability. This show had its standout items, but as I explained in yesterday's post (What We Saw) there was a serious imbalance. Rather than there being a wide variety of eras and brands with a few things seemingly more plentiful, this time there were eras and brands that were ubiquitous, and some that weren't there at all.

Big, beautiful Lionel postwar 0-gauge sets. Those F3s were
everywhere a few years ago --almost non-existant at this show. 

Where's the good stuff?

I think the same theory explains what we saw and what we didn't. The graying of the toy train collector population means more estate liquidations and more downsizing. Most collections that are part of estates are handled by auction houses. And that makes sense. Heirs with no knowledge or interest in toy trains can simply let the auction house collect it all and liquidate it. If the heirs do their homework, they'll place the items with a house specializing in vintage toys. And notices from those houses I see with increasing frequency, announcing the sale of another "legendary" collection.

Those super-collections don't show up at the dealer tables at York. But what does show up are the results of gradual downsizing -- particularly for said dealers. When anyone downsizes, they discard the least valuable and desirable, and just keep a few valuable items.

At York, we didn't see many valuable items. No top-of-the-line standard gauge sets, desirable both for the quality of their craftsmanship and their rarity; no "girl's train," Lionel's Edsel; very few postwar Lionel GG1s, Santa Fe streamliners, Trainmasters, and other extremely popular trains and accessories; nothing above mid-level products. And usually, the more desirable a piece was in the overall hierarchy, the worse it's condition.

Lionel's Girl's Train (top) was a really bad idea that didn't sell well.
It's rarity and kitsch appeal makes it valuable today -- but a no-show at this show.


Most of what we saw were trains in the low to mid-range of collectability -- the very part of a collection that's easiest to let go. And the more collectible pieces we saw were in average or below average condition. If you've upgraded, then you'd want to get rid of those pieces. My personal theory is that if you have extremely limited display room, you're not going to waste it on scratched or rusty toys. So even if they're of higher collectability, if you don't have the shelf space, they've got to go.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lessons from York: What We Saw: Low-end unloading

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby. 

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

A question of imbalance

In the past, this series has talked about what we saw a lot of and what we saw almost none of -- but it was set against the context that of a wide variety of choices. So even if everyone had Madison cars (as they did in 2011), or Lionel diesels from the 1950s (2015), if you looked long enough, you could find an early 1900s Ives piece, or a 1950s Kusan train. Big-ticket items such as a 1929 Lionel State Set wouldn't be on every table, but there would two or three (or a few more) scattered throughout the halls.

This time, though, the variety was missing. We saw a lot of two things, and only a smattering of anything else.

Price matters

With rare exceptions, for toy trains desirability pretty much follows original pricing. Top of the line train sets tends to remain the most desirable and command the highest prices. Mid-priced trains tend to be common in collections -- they were made in greater quantities than the high-end trains, and remain more affordable and therefore easy to acquire.

Low-end trains usually sold the best, and so were made in the largest quantities. Their lower quality, though, meant that they don't hold up as well as mid-level trains. Top tier sets, because of their expense, were usually handled very carefully (many only run under the Christmas tree once yearly). If you wanted to play train wreck, it was the low-price trains you did it with.

We saw a lot of these Lionel ten series standard gauge freight cars.
None were in as good a condition as these -- and priced accordingly.

So many low-end trains didn't survive. Those that did usually have condition issues. That makes mint examples of these entry-level trains somewhat desirable. But they're still low-end trains with a limited appeal so that extra value isn't very high.

Low-end Prewar

There were a lot of prewar (before WWII) trains available. We saw O-gauge trains and the larger-scale standard gauge trains from the major toy companies. And they all had one thing in common -- they were all from the lower end of the collecting scale. We saw the bottom-of-the-line sets from Lionel and American Flyer, as well as some others. There were lots of locomotives and rolling stock, but not a lot of accessories (such as stations, signal posts, and lights).

Lionel Junior was created to compete with Marx (see below) at the same
price point. We saw a lot of this at the show.

It was the type of items I'd choose to get rid of if I was downsizing a prewar toy train collection. Remember, most toy collecting is nostalgic -- we want the toys of our youth. Collectors who were youths in the 1930s are in their 80s. If you can only keep some of your collection, you'll want to hold on the best of the best. And what we saw at York was the rest.

All very reasonably priced, and most of it in fair to good condition. Even low-end trains have their fans -- but they're probably holding on the near-mint examples. If you wanted to start a prewar collection, this would have been the show for you -- most every table had some entry-level items.

When Santa couldn't afford Lionel, he went with Marx.
Postwar Marx

Louis Marx and Co. were always the low-price alternatives in the toy train field. They mimicked the offerings of Lionel and American Flyer with the product sold at a fraction of the price. Marx trains have a certain appeal -- they're elaborately lithographed with bright, bold colors and plenty of detail. They're fun toy trains, but they're still cheaply made, and still run third in popularity behind Lionel and American Flyer. You dreamed of Lionel -- but often Marx was what you got instead.

This show we saw a lot of Marx postwar trains. And I think it was also a symptom of downsizing and liquidation. None of it is very valuable, and all of it takes up space. Even if you were a dedicated Marx collector, these were the items you could live without. We saw table after table of the most commonplace engines and freight cars.

Again, if you were just starting out collecting Marx, this would have been a great show. But I wonder. It seems to me that prewar toy trains and postwar Marx are areas of the hobby more people are transitioning out of rather than into. And that makes me wonder how many of the things we saw this year were packed up and taken back home unsold.

Tomorrow: What we didn't' see

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Pearls Before Swine Grief Counselling

This Pearls Before Swine strip ran May 15, 2016.  Since the humor in this sequence depends on the element of surprise,

I reserved my comments until after the reveal because that's where the payoff is. All the information we get beforehand - cruel treatment, depression, lost love -- pop into place once we see that it's Charlie Brown.

The last panel has all the comedic gold.

"Good grief, Charlie Brown" in the Peanuts strip is an expression of exasparation (as in, "Good grief, Charlie Brown, you're such a blockhead!") Goat's delivery would have been different, as he was stating a discovery. "Good grief, [it's] Charlie Brown."

Charlie Brown's comment about middle age is an understatement. Peanuts started in 1950, with the apparent age of the characters being 6. So in 2016, Charlie Brown would either be 70 (his presumed real age), or 64 (from the start of the strip). "Middle age," indeed!

As a coda, Rat brings in an old Peanuts trope in keeping with his cruel nature (and perhaps in the process pointing out the inherent cruelty in the original running gag). Another masterwork from Stephan Pastis.