Greenberg’s Marx Trains Pocket Price Guide, 9th edition: A review

I received my copy of the new 9th edition of the Greenberg Pocket Price Guide for Marx trains this past weekend. Marx used to print on its packages, “One of the many Marx toys. Have you all of them?” This book won’t completely answer that question, but at the very least, it gives you a start, and helps you avoid paying too much for the ones you don’t have yet.

The 2011 Greenberg Pocket Guide to Marx Trains

Reaction from the Marx collecting community has been mixed, as veteran Marx collectors have identified a handful of errors in the guide. Overall, I’m glad there’s an up-to-date reference book available at an affordable price, as the 8th edition, long since out of print, routinely commanded $100 on the open market.

The guide is 80 pages long and measures approximately 3.5″x8.5″, so it really can fit in a jacket pocket. You can easily take it with you as you hunt for items, whether at train stores, train shows, antique stores, estate sales, or other secondhand stores. Don’t worry; at train stores and shows, dealers expect many collectors to have these books. Nobody can remember everything, and most people use these guides not only to track pricing, but also to track the items they have and condition. The book contains blanks for just this purpose.

Now, for the criticisms. This edition, like previous editions, says numbering on the colorful Marx 7-inch KCS caboose starts at number 969. This is incorrect. Generally, collectors seem to agree that the numbering started at 966.

A wind-up 490 locomotive exists, and it’s not in the guide at all.

The illuminated New York Central 20102 caboose listed in the scale section doesn’t exist, at least not as a factory item. An unknown number of hobbyists have made these over the years, but they didn’t come that way from the manufacturer. So if you pay extra for one, you’re paying for workmanship, not for a collector’s item. While it’s possible some have been made fraudulently, it’s also a perfectly understandable improvement to a common and very inexpensive item.

The 666 locomotive with side exhaust, listed in the steam locomotives section, also doesn’t exist as a factory item. The mechanism from a side-smoking plastic 1666 can easily fit into a diecast 666 body, but Marx never sold them that way.

And the book doesn’t distinguish between the minor variants of some locomotives. Low-end locomotives in particular were sold with and without reverse, and the 400 locomotive sometimes contains a double-reduction motor that has more pulling power and is compatible with a much wider variety of track. A 400 containing a double-reduction motor is much more desirable than one with the single-reduction motor–the motor alone is worth $10-$15 to me. So perhaps a fair price for a 400 with a double-reduction motor with no major damage is $25-$35. As for reverse, I don’t know that I’d assign a dollar value to one over the other but completists would probably want one of each.

As for those double-reduction motors, the motors in damaged 400s often find their way into more desirable locomotives that weren’t sold that way. There’s nothing wrong with paying $15 over book value to get a Commodore Vanderbilt upgraded with a double-reduction motor, but it’s not a rare collector’s item, so don’t pay a collector price for it. That’s a warning I wish was in this guide.

The long-running Marx Train Yahoo group is compiling a list of errors. If you buy this guide, I suggest joining the group, and not just to download the list. The list isn’t complete yet. My best guess from the talk on the list is that there are perhaps a dozen or so errors but at this point only four have been compiled in the file. In the coming months, the list will grow–right now, the experts are still recovering from the big twice-a-year train meet in York, Pennsylvania.

I suggest taking the file, dropping the margins down to about 3.25″x8.5″, printing it, and tucking it into the book or perhaps even taping it to page 80 (which is just a full-page ad) or the inside of one of the covers. That way, any time you see something you haven’t seen before, you can verify it against the known mistakes.

There are people who are unhappy about the errors. I understand why, especially since some of them have been widely known for a decade or more. I’ve known about the windup 490 since at least 2004, and I’m not an advanced collector. I don’t have the time, space, or money to collect and research every variant of toy train, Marx or otherwise. My attraction to Marx is primarily that they’re relatively easy to find and affordable, and they’re tin relics of a bygone era, significantly different from anything you can find in retail stores today. And few people know that the tin cars like the ones that appear on the cover of the book were produced until 1972. Most people think tin trains weren’t produced after 1941.

The late Tasker Brush speculated way back in 2001 that at least some of the errors in earlier Greenberg guides may have been intentional “ringers” for use in proving copyright infringement. In 2007, Paul Ambrose used the presence of his ringers in Krause publications’ Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains 1945-69 as evidence, and the copyright infringement case was settled in his favor.

But I also have a counter-argument. In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I have written for Kalmbach. I don’t believe the amount of money I was paid for the article that appears in the January 2012 issue of Classic Toy Trains is enough to change my opinion about this guide, but I believe you have the right to know about it. But I also want you to know that I paid for my copy of the guide–Kalmbach doesn’t offer me freebies, and I don’t ask for them. Perhaps all of this gives me additional credibility, or perhaps in your mind it creates a conflict of interest. I don’t believe it does, but you can make up your own mind.

Prior to the publication of this guide, there was a serious information divide in the Marx collecting community. The 8th edition of this guide was published in April 2001, and used copies haven’t been available for less than the cover price since sometime in 2004. The only other reference available is the large O’Brien guide from 2006, which itself is starting to get expensive, and has problems. It completely omits Marx’s 3/16 line, prices some common items unrealistically high, and contains some of the same errors as the Greenberg guides such as omitting the windup 490 locomotive and the existence of the 7-inch KCS cabooses numbered 966-968.

So the 9th edition Pocket Price Guide is better than any other printed guide available and it costs $13. That price solves some problems.

A couple of years ago, Marx collectors noted that pricing on the Marx 333 steam locomotive spiraled to unrealistic levels on eBay. For a time, no 333 sold for less than $150. Most likely, several people developed a fondness for the 333, wanted several ASAP, and bid up the prices. Now, this easily obtained guide states clearly that a non-smoking 333 in excellent condition is worth $65, and a smoking 333 in excellent condition is worth $105. Nobody in possession of this guide is likely to bid more than that.

Many antique dealers only know about and own the O’Brien’s guide. So when the O’Brien price is too low, owners of the Greenberg guide will be able to scoop up bargains. When the O’Brien price is too high, owners of the Greenberg guide will have more negotiating power. Not everyone will lower an asking price when shown a lower price in a Greenberg guide, but it never hurts to ask.

And the Greenberg guide provides you a sanity check when buying items online. Maybe you want a KCS caboose, and maybe it’s only worth $50 to you, but if you have this book, you’ll know why you’ll be waiting a while to get one for that price.

So I still recommend this guide. Not on the basis of it being a complete, flawless reference. It is neither complete nor flawless.

But it presents a broader picture of the Marx spectrum than you’ll find anywhere else. For the most complete picture of Marx 6-inch tin, Walt Hiteshew’s CD-ROM is unsurpassed and thanks to its format, can go into far more detail than one can realistically expect in book form. But it only covers 6-inch tin.

Will owning this guide save you more than the cover price ($12.95) by helping you to not pay too much for Marx trains? Most assuredly. In my mind, that alone would be reason to justify purchasing it. I don’t think that’s the only reason to own it. So for that reason, I recommend the guide, even though it’s not quite perfect. And as for those imperfections, if nothing else, knowing what errors are in any given book is one way to separate the experts from the rest of the pack.

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