Estimating the value of a Marx train

One of the most frequent questions I see or receive directly about Marx trains is what a Marx train is worth, or the value of a Marx train. Of course without seeing the train, it’s nearly impossible to give a good estimate, but there are some general rules that you can follow, either to protect yourself as a buyer, or to keep your expectations realistic as a seller.

Reality television usually isn’t

One important thing to keep in mind is that what you see on television isn’t typical of reality. Appraising a bunch of $100 train sets doesn’t make for good television ratings, so what you see are the extremes. The appraisals that you see on a PBS show, which doesn’t have to worry about ratings, will be better than the appraisals you see on cable television, but even those appraisals at times seem a bit optimistic.

Also, a lot goes into determining the value of a set beyond just age. Condition and rarity play a much bigger role than age, and while there certainly are Marx rarities, there are fewer Marx rarities than there are in other makes of trains.

Marx and rarity

One of the reasons Marx was able to keep prices down was because they would keep items in production for 20 years while their competitors would change what they produced every couple of years. It was cheaper to produce the same thing unchanged until the tooling wore out.

The other thing about Marx was that their stuff tended to be pretty rugged and dependable, so a lot of it survives to this day. It wasn’t uncommon at all for a Marx set to be passed down from multiple kids of the same generation, and sometimes even across generations. And if the motor in a Marx train ever wore out, Marx would fix it for free as long as you mailed it in to them, so it was cheaper to build the motor to last.

Estimating value

It’s always a dangerous thing to estimate value–I really do recommend getting a price guide if you’re going to collect, or even if you have a large number of trains to liquidate–but there are some general guidelines you can follow.

A common Marx locomotive is generally worth between $10 and $50. The more features the locomotive has, the more likely it is to fall into the middle or upper end of that scale. A featureless steam locomotive with no headlight and no reverse function is more likely to fall into the $10 range. The nicer Marx locomotives like the big plastic diesels or the bigger 4-6-2 or 4-6-4 steam locomotives tend to be worth more, perhaps $100 if they aren’t too beat up.

As a general rule, the cars tend to be worth around $10 each. Again, this is a general rule, but the cars from the middle of the train tend to be worth a bit more than cabooses, if only because the people who run the trains usually have more cabooses than they need anyway. The cabooses for the really big railroads like the New York Central, Santa Fe (ATSF), and Union Pacific tend to be cheaper than the cabooses from lines like the Monon and Kansas City Southern. If you think you have something unusual, get a price guide.

It’s not all that unusual for a set to have one car in it that’s worth more than the average. But, again, Marx train sets that are worth $50-$100 are much more common than sets that are worth $300.

Regarding the rest of the set, the box is worth something. For whatever reason, Marx owners were more prone to store their train sets in the boxes they came in than Lionel and American Flyer owners were, but a box adds around 10 percent to the value of the set overall, perhaps a bit more if it’s an unusual set, or if the box is in really nice shape. If there’s still a price tag on the box, leave it there. Provenance isn’t worth a ton, but it’s worth something. Even if the box is really beat up, save it. The set is worth more with it than without it.

The track and transformer generally aren’t worth as much. Track is worth $.50-$1.00 per section in nice shape unless it happens to be the wider diameter O34 track, which is worth about double that. To estimate the value of the transformer, take the wattage and multiply it by .25 or .5. A small-wattage transformer, at 25-40 watts, is worth no more than $10. The larger 150-watt transformer can approach $75 in value, or perhaps a bit more. The biggest transformer any company made is always its most valuable.

Any paper that came with the box is also worth something, or at the very least increases collector interest, which will indirectly increase the value. Instruction sheets and paper buildings that came with the set are much less common than the trains themselves, since they were more likely to be discarded.

The rarity factor

Of course generalization can get you in trouble. From time to time a Marx set from 1974 comes up, and it looks for all the world like something that ought to be worth $25. Public interest in trains was at or near its all-time low in 1974, the real railroads were struggling, and so were the companies that made the trains for kids.

Lionel trains from the 1970s aren’t worth a lot, and Marx trains are generally worth less than similar Lionels, so a Marx set from 1974 ought to be the lowest of the low. Except it isn’t, because Marx changed its designs in late 1973, so there are items that Marx produced for only a year before getting out of the train business for good. And those items didn’t sell particularly well, which was why Marx left the business.

So when one of these sets sells for a few hundred dollars, it tends to bring up a lot of snickering on forums from people who think every Marx train ought to be worth no more than $50. That’s why I’m always uncomfortable appraising the value of a set sight unseen–there’s stuff out there that looks like it ought to be really valuable that isn’t all that valuable, and stuff that looks like it ought to be worthless that really is fairly valuable.

The salvage factor

Incomplete or damaged trains aren’t necessarily worthless, but they will greatly decrease the value of a train. A train that’s missing parts will need replacements.

Wheels, axles and couplers generally cost $1-$1.50 each to replace. A body frame is worth a couple of dollars, and so is a truck frame.

So if a car is missing parts, you can use those values to estimate what it will cost to complete it, and get the value of what’s left.

If a locomotive is missing parts, it’s not worthless but its value is also diminished. A motor is worth $10-$25, and a truck is worth around $10. A motor shell in relatively good condition is worth something to someone who has a complete but damaged locomotive, but it’s a more limited market.

Dealer value

When you sell a train to a dealer, you can expect to get 1/3 of the book value of the train, or perhaps 1/2 if the dealer expects the set to sell quickly. This margin gives the dealer enough to pay rent, utilities, taxes, and salaries.

When you sell to a collector, you may be able to get closer to book value since they’re not necessarily trying to make a living off the train.

Also keep in mind that either a dealer or a collector is going to adjust the value based on condition. The high number in a price guide represents a nearly flawless train, and most trains that got played with aren’t flawless.

The company and its legacy’s effect on train values

Louis Marx started his career as a salesman working for other toy companies. He started his own company in the 1920s when he bought tooling for a couple of slow-selling tin toys. He figured out that by printing a new design on an old toy, he could make it sell again.

By the late 1920s, Marx was reselling simple tin trains made by a small company in Girard, Pennsylvania called Joy Line. By 1934, Marx bought Joy Line, and soon after Marx started revising the design, hoping to broaden its appeal. The attempts were successful, and Marx ended up producing trains for 40 years.

Marx never forgot about the economy of refreshing existing designs with new printing, and Marx’s overall strategy was to undercut its competitors’ prices. Marx was more than happy to sell train sets that cost half as much as its competitors, regardless of how much they had to simplify a set to meet a given price point, and they were also willing to sell more expensive sets with more features and try to give customers more for their money than Lionel or American Flyer did.

For a time in the 1950s, Louis Marx was the biggest toymaker in the world, and they had a full line of toys, not just trains. Two of the iconic toys of the 1970s, the game Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and the red and yellow Big Wheel, were first marketed by Marx. But ultimately the secret of Marx’s success was also its downfall. Marx saw other large toymakers come and go during his long career and saw himself rise from an upstart to being the biggest in the world, so he believed someone else could do the same. Not wanting to bring about his own downfall, he was careful about who he mentored and how much, so he wouldn’t inadvertently clone himself. This gave him a long career but it also meant when the time came for him to retire, he had no successor. In the early 1970s there was a trend of food conglomerates diversifying into toys, so Marx sold out to Quaker Oats in 1972. Quaker Oats also owned Fisher-Price, so they put Fisher-Price management in charge of Marx. Unfortunately for Quaker, the Fisher-Price management had trouble adjusting to the more seasonal nature of Marx’s product line, so the acquisition wasn’t very successful. Quaker soon divested the acquisition, and by 1978, Marx was out of business. Louis Marx ended up outliving his namesake company, dying in 1982.

Because they were less expensive and had a reputation for being sold at discount stores while their costlier counterparts sold at department stores, Marx trains didn’t quite get the following that Lionel and American Flyer did. And as baby boomers came of age and had the disposable income to buy the houseful of trains their parents couldn’t buy them in their youth, Lionel and American Flyer prices went up and up while the value of Marx trains increased much more slowly. And since Marx produced the same basic locomotives for decades while Lionel and American Flyer would change features–or at least the catalog number–every couple of years means most Marx items are much more common than their counterparts from other companies.

That said, American Flyer and Lionel prices have been sliding for the last couple of decades as baby boomers have aged and started selling off their collections. Marx prices didn’t have as far to fall, so they’ve held more steady. Trains shouldn’t be considered an investment but Marx trains have held their value fairly well over the last two decades.

In conclusion

It seems like people tend to go to one extreme or another with their trains, either thinking they are worthless, or thinking they’re worth as much as a decent car–as in automobile.

Realistically, I see boxed, near-complete Marx sets in nice shape at train shows and at dealers all the time for $50-$100. Demand isn’t as high as it was a decade ago, but it does seem like Marx gets more and more respect as time goes on. Marx was interested in selling toys at particular strategic price points, not in creating fine-scale models. But as the price of new trains continues to rise, there are people who are coming to appreciate the durability and economy of Marx trains, and it doesn’t matter much that the last one was produced well over 40 years ago.

If you know what you have, price it at market rate, and you make sure it runs, it’s not hard to sell a Marx train.

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