When people hear what my hobby is, sometimes they ask me, “Are Lionel trains worth anything?”
That’s a fair question. After all, television says they are. But there’s something else you ought to know. Back in 2003, if someone asked me that question, I could tell them to go to the library to find out what those trains are worth. Today, my public library doesn’t have a current Lionel price guide. There’s a reason for that. Lionel trains aren’t worth as much as they were in 2003, and people aren’t checking those books out anymore.
Driven by the Baby Boom
That’s not to say they’re worthless. But Lionel trains were expensive because kids who grew up in the 1950s started buying up the trains they couldn’t afford to have when they were kids.
The last of the Boomers were born in 1961, so they’d be in their mid 50s now. They’re at the age when they need to start paring down their collections, not buying more stuff. But the people who were really driving Lionel values into the stratosphere are in their 70s now, if they’re still alive. Their kids don’t want them, or at least they don’t want all of them, so the market for 1950s Lionel trains is flooded.
Cheap stuff makes for bad television
Of course, television tells a different story. Turn on the TV, and you still see stories of fantastically valuable Lionel trains.
I remember getting into an argument with the editor of a train magazine popular with Lionel enthusiasts (not one published by Kalmbach) about the accuracy of these shows. Maybe he and I watched different episodes. But I stand by my argument that these shows give the impression that all Lionel trains are valuable.
The best of the best Lionel trains are very valuable. But we’re talking the trains that are in the absolute best condition and might not have ever run on the track. Mint-in-box examples of vintage Lionel trains are still valuable and will continue to appreciate in value over time, because there are so few of them. That’s the stuff you see on TV, because it’s the exceptional stuff that makes good TV.
Most kids ripped open the box, set up the train, ran it at full speed, and wrecked it. A lot. Some of the wrecks were accidents and some were on purpose. Some kids got out their model paints and painted them. Some took the trains apart to see if they could figure out how they worked. Some didn’t succeed in putting them back together.
Why ordinary Lionel trains are dropping in value
In 2003, if an estate sale ad said it had a Lionel train, at least five people would show up and stand in line for two hours hoping to buy it. Whoever got in line the earliest almost always did.
Today, I can stroll in to a sale several hours after it opens and the train will usually still be there. I’ve even given estate sale operators free advice on how to sell the trains more easily.
It’s generally people between the ages of 30 and 50 who drive the vintage toy market. If you were born between 1967 and 1987, what are you interested in? Hot Wheels, G.I. Joe, Star Wars, Atari and Nintendo. Not Lionel.
Here’s a true story. When a 30-something coworker asked me what I’d buy if I had a $1,000 windfall, I said a Lionel Blue Comet. He didn’t know what a Lionel train was.
How to value and sell a Lionel train
If you want to get an idea of what your Lionel train is worth, a good place to start is Ebay. Every Lionel locomotive and car has a number printed on the side. Search Ebay for the word “Lionel” and that number. Then scroll down and check the box on the side that reads Sold Listings. Look for one in comparable condition to the one you have. Keep in mind that boxes and paperwork add value, so if you find a listing that has those and yours doesn’t, it’s not a comparable listing.
Those listings will give you an idea of what you have. Generally speaking, Lionel locomotives with 3-digit numbers will be worth more than ones with four-digit numbers, and Lionel 6464 series box cars are more collectible than most other cars Lionel made. Accessories are rarer, in general, than the trains themselves.
For advice on actually selling them, see my post on selling Lionel trains.