Shopping an estate sale for trains

My girlfriend loves shopping at yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and basically everywhere people look for bargains.

I’m not into that all that much. I’m a guy. So I just asked her to keep an eye out for tools for me if she happened to be garage sale-ing.

This week she found an estate sale with tools and trains. It started at 7:30 this morning. So I dragged myself out of bed to go.The description said "electric trains." Usually when people say electric trains, they mean old American Flyer, Lionel or Marx, because that was what those companies used to put on their boxes. "Model trains" usually means HO or N scale. Nothing against those, but they’re not my thing. And besides, you can buy those anywhere.

When I got there, it was right at 7:30. It looked like they’d started early because there were lots of people there. I noticed a lot of people glancing at the trains but not staying long. I took a look. The glossy brightly-colored enameled bodies instantly told me it was pre-war stuff. I looked at the prices. $85 for a refrigerated car. $28 for a gondola. $24 for a caboose. These guys had gone to the library and looked up the values of the cars. I know because the guy told me so.

"Are these prices about right? I went to the library and looked them up."

I explained to him that the Greenberg price guides tend to be skewed in favor of the east coast. Prices are higher there, partly because the cost of living is higher out there than in the midwest, and partly because there’s a bigger following over there. Lionel and Marx were both New York companies. Gilbert was a New Haven company. Flyer was a Chicago company before selling out to Gilbert, but that was prior to 1938. There’s more appeal to the stuff on the east coast because you find people whose grandfather or great uncle worked for one of those companies, or some other connection.

What I didn’t tell him (but should have) was that those prices are for mint condition. And while his items were in nice shape, they were anything but mint. Most of them would grade to excellent, or very good. Stepping down a grade knocks anywhere from 10%-50% off the price of the item.

The cars also weren’t 100% original. At some point the couplers on the cars had been replaced with Lionel post-war couplers. That’s an upgrade, which is probably why the original owner had done it, and whoever did the upgrade did a good job, but from a collector’s point of view, it lowers the value. It’s an advantage to people who run the trains, but someone like me isn’t going to pay extra for it.

The prewar freight set that was priced at $137 total at this sale probably would have been priced closer to $75 at Marty’s Model Railroads, frankly. Marty probably would have given him $40 total.

He also had two passenger sets. They would have graded out to Good, possibly only Fair. They, too, were priced at mint.

There was a nice prewar engine. I forget the number. It was priced at $250 for the engine and tender. That’s a fair price if it’s a whistling tender, if the engine is in perfect working order, and the paint is good. The paint was really good on the engine. But it probably at least needed a lube job. With no way to test the engine, there was no way I was going to pay $250 for it.

I spied a couple of postwar Marx diesels, priced at $50. It was an A-B pair, with the B unit being a dummy. A quick examination revealed the front had been cracked and re-glued. Diesels tend to go for more than steam engines the same age, but in that condition, and untested, a Marx should only go for $20.

I also spied a couple of pairs of Marx metal switches. They were the electric variety. I’m told metal Marx switches were prewar. I don’t know about that, since all of the metal ones I’ve ever seen were in a lot with postwar equipment. Maybe they were put together after the war with old parts. Marx was known for that. At any rate, the Marx metal switches are highly desirable. The later plastic switches sit higher than your track, so you have to shim your track for the locomotives to run right. These don’t. Also, the design allows Marx and American Flyer engines with thicker wheels than Lionels to pass through them. So a metal Marx switch lets you run any train you want. And unlike the Lionels of the same vintage, they run off a fixed 18 volts, not from the track, so they tend to work more reliably.

The only Lionel switch that compares is the Lionel 1121, which Lionel didn’t make for very long. It’s easier to make the 1121 self-tending, but in all other regards the Marx is better.

The switches were priced at $10 per pair, including the original boxes, control panels and wires (but the wires need to be replaced). That’s not a fabulous price, but it’s fair. I paid $10 per pair for some plastic Marx manual switches at Marty’s back in December. Marx switches tend to sell for $10 per pair on eBay, but then you have to deal with shipping.

So I bought the two pair of switches, and nothing else.

Later, my girlfriend told me they wouldn’t take her check. So I guess it’s a good thing I only got the switches. I wouldn’t have been able to get any more even if I’d wanted to, because I only had $24 in cash on me.

It was a mild disappointment. I took a quick look at the tools and saw the same thing. Prices were very close to what I would pay at Sears. Only at Sears, I’d get a warranty on it, and if I bought $100 worth of stuff, I’d get a $5 off coupon on my next purchase.

It was a mild disappointment. She was disappointed too. I’m going to assume it wasn’t typical. She told me it wasn’t a very good estate sale.

I think I’ll go back tomorrow afternoon, towards the end, and see if the trains are still there. Maybe then he’ll be looking to deal. Marty can charge the prices he does because he’s willing and able to sit on inventory for months or years. Individuals usually can’t or won’t do that. But he was charging more than Marty would.

If not, there’ll be more next week, or if not, the week after. ‘Tis the season, and very early in the season, at that.

5 thoughts on “Shopping an estate sale for trains

  • May 1, 2004 at 1:27 pm
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    Sounds like you are just going around in circles. 🙂

  • May 1, 2004 at 3:28 pm
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    That’s part of the fun of shopping estate sales, sometimes you turn up a good deal, sometimes not. There’s folks that don’t know what they have, and folks who think their junk is treasures. And there are even a few who do know what they have, including its condition, and what the real market is, where you work out a square deal. From such people the exchange of info and ideas is worth more than the goods. I’ve chased car parts at swap meets with about the same level of success, but I always learn something.

    • May 2, 2004 at 10:19 am
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      Yep, I’m looking forward to being able to go to a good swap meet for the first time. I found out recently that the one that happens every December at the high school I graduated from is one of the best ones in the midwest, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to make it this year.

      Sharing knowledge is definitely a good thing. I just bought a 70+-year-old train car off eBay. The seller was from St. Louis, so we’ll be completing the transaction in person. We’ve already swapped some info back and forth. It’ll be good to see if we can learn anything else from each other.

      As for the estate sale, I can’t complain too terribly much–I always like to look at the old stuff even if I don’t buy it. That’s what museums are for, after all.

      I think you’re right, Karl: The thrill of the chase has to be part of the fun.

  • May 2, 2004 at 1:42 am
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    I recommend to your girlfriend a particular forum in a site I frequent: the "Countryside Families" forum of http://homesteadingtoday.com/vb/

    Of course, if she already knows it then she already knows me.

    • May 2, 2004 at 10:11 am
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      Looks like it might be her kind of place. I’ll be sure to pass it on to her.

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