My greatest estate find

If you’ve been reading this blog for a few years, you know I kind of like trains. But my favorite way to buy them isn’t to buy them at a train store. I like to buy them from estates.

One week, I spotted a few late-production Marx 6-inch cars and a plastic locomotive in an estate ad. I tallied up $30 worth of trains in the picture, and figured I’d be lucky if they asked $60 for it. But I decided to take another look at the picture,  just in case.

This wasn’t an ordinary train.Marx produced trains powered pretty much every way imaginable: windup clockwork mechanisms, battery-powered electric, and wall-powered electric. The wall-powered electric sets are the ones most people go after today, but a lot of people’s first train sets were of the clockwork variety, because they were cheap. If a youngster showed an interest in the trains, they could buy an electric-powered Marx set and the cars from the windup set would work with it. And if the train ended up in a box in the bottom of a closet, it wasn’t a huge deal.

This particular set was a clockwork set. Marx made several plastic windup locomotives, including the 198, 400, and 490. Only the 490 is rare (and only in the windup version; the electric 490 is dirt common). The 198 and 400 look very different, and I could tell this was either a 400 or a 490. So I enlarged the picture, and that sure looked like a “490” on the cab.

But there was a problem. This was a Friday-Saturday sale. I couldn’t get there on Friday. I couldn’t be there right at opening time on Saturday either. I’d just have to do the best I could.

But, like I said, it looked for all the world like a $30 train, and many estate sale companies price their trains too high. Someone buying the train for resale would have to pay $10 for it to make a profit, and a company that features an item in its photos, doesn’t plan to price it at $10.

I only know one other guy in St. Louis who would possibly know that train was something special, and he’s not an estate sale guy.

So I bet on the train still being there when I arrived.

I arrived about an hour after they opened. What was left of the initial crowd was mostly in line to check out. I saw what looked like some toy fence, perhaps Plasticville, under the checkout table. I wandered around the first floor looking for the train, and after three passes, didn’t find it.

So I wandered upstairs. That’s not where I expected the train to be, but right at the top of the stairs, there it was: a tattered box, a plastic bag full of beat-up windup track, four very common Marx six-inch tin cars, and a plastic locomotive. I picked it up. The numbers under the cab read “490.” A note on the locomotive said the cashier had the key–a ploy to keep someone from stealing the train, probably.

Yes, there are scumbags who steal from estate sales. Estate sales are precisely what they sound like–an effort to liquidate an estate, to help someone near the end of life survive, or to help the survivors pay for the final expenses of someone deceased. But some people have no qualms about stealing from them, and, sadly, on one occasion I actually witnessed someone doing it. At another sale, when I bought a 1930s American Flyer electric train, the sellers said people steal the cars from trains all the time, and thanked me for my honesty.

But no thieves had walked off with any of the key parts of this set. No one had bought it either. I looked at the price tag: $65. Being half-price day, I’d pay $32.50. I picked the locomotive up yet again, to make sure my eyes weren’t fooling me. A common Marx windup set, even with the box, wasn’t worth $32.50 to me. But a windup 490 was.

Seeing my interest in the train, a woman sitting at the table said she had the key. “The train works,” she said. “We had it set up and tried it out. Gently, of course.”

We talked about the train a bit. She couldn’t figure out what a 1940s train was doing in an estate with a bunch of 1960s toys like GI Joe. I said they made the trains like this into the 1950s, and guessed–incorrectly–that it dated to 1952 or so.

I paid for the train, did my best to piece the box back together, and hauled it all out to my car as carefully as I could. “Bye, old train,” she said as I departed. “I’m glad it’s going to a good home.”

When I got the train home, I looked it up. The windup 490 was made one year, in 1962. The tin cars were made well into the 1960s as well, until stricter OSHA standards made their production no longer profitable. So this set was from 1962. GI Joe was introduced in 1964. A two-year spread made a lot more sense.

With that mystery solved, I examined the box to see what else I could learn from it. The set number, 452, was lightly stamped on one side. Most of a price tag was left on one of the other sides. The original price: $3.98. In 2012 dollars, that would be $29.80. Not a bad deal, considering what the trains my kids play with cost today, and the Marx train was made in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately the store’s name on the price tag was incomplete. “ungtown” was all that remained. I found a reference to a store in Lincoln, Nebraska called “Youngtown” in a 1964 issue of Boys’ Life magazine. Maybe that’s where this set came from.

I set it up, of course. It ran, though not very well. Some people have speculated the 490’s design wasn’t suited to the windup motor and that’s why it was only made one year.

I also took to mending the box. I glued the torn portions back together with archival quality bookbinder’s glue. It discolors the cardboard slightly but keeps the box from deteriorating further. It also made the box functional again.

Buying trains this way severely limits what I can find, but it makes it challenging. Anyone can enter a train store, give the owner a want list, and flash a wad of cash. Someone who does that probably won’t go home that very day with everything on the list, but if the wad of cash is big enough and the person is willing to wait a few months, he or she can probably get everything on that list. But there’s absolutely no element of the hunt.

Buying from estates, I never know what I’m going to get, and I never know if the next find will be in a week or a year. But that’s part of the fun.

2 thoughts on “My greatest estate find

  • March 5, 2014 at 4:36 pm
    Permalink

    Well, David, now you have obtained the clockwork train set; what are you going to do with it? Do you regularly operate clockwork trains, or do you prefer to give it a nice place in a display cabinet?
    I would have loved to see a picture of it and hope you can enjoy it for a long time.
    Greetings
    Eggo

    • March 5, 2014 at 7:43 pm
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      Mainly I’m interested in preserving and displaying it. I’m sure I’ll run it occasionally, on a loop of track on the floor, but given the fragility of the 490 body, it won’t be running on my table layout.

      Windups are outside my main area of interest and plastic windups doubly so, but given the scarcity of the windup 490–this literally is the only one I’ve seen in 10 years–I’ll be holding on to it.

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