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The greatest European tinplate train collection in the United States is on display

Two years ago, Jerry Greene made a splash when he attempted to put his huge, one-of-a-kind train collection up for auction. He had quietly amassed 35,000 train items, and only a handful of people knew about it.

Transporting the collection to Sotheby’s let that cat out of the bag. It became the subject of a short feature in the October 2012 issue of Classic Toy Trains, and relentless speculation on all of the major online toy train forums.

The collection, now known as the “Jerni collection,” didn’t sell–it was a one-buyer-take-all affair–so now portions of it are on display at the New York Historical Society.

Realistically, just the pieces pictured in the seven photos in CTT, or the six photos in the story I linked above, would be an impressive collection on their own.

Greene got his start as most collectors do, collecting Lionel. But in the 1970s, he accumulated a nearly complete collection of postwar Lionel–an impressive achievement, but something several people have done–so he turned to collecting tinplate European-manufactured trains instead, which is a road much less traveled. I appreciate that. I remember one time, someone asking another hobbyist and me why we don’t just collect Lionel, and we both said, at the same time, “Lionel is too obvious.”

To me, it’s impressive that he accumulated his entire collection within 100 miles of his home in Philadelphia, but in all fairness, the best toys of a century ago were purchased in that area and tended to stay in that area. Plus, buying stuff twice a year for 40 years at the huge train show in York, Pennsylvania helps–a lot of the stuff that escapes the eastern seaboard will find its way back to York.

Not talking about it much certainly helped. There are two ways of looking at that. Some people like for other people to like what they like, and some people don’t want other people competing with them. Collecting postwar Lionel probably was what drove Greene to the latter approach. He certainly went from one extreme to the other.

Since I know someone is going to ask the question, I’ll go ahead and tackle it: What’s it worth?

It’s 35,000 pieces. Some items would realistically be worth less than $20, while some of the one-of-a-kind Marklin items would be worth tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands, on their own. Arbitrarily picking an average value of $100 seems low, but it’s a fair starting point. An average value of $1,000 might also be fair. I’m not convinced that figure is too high, frankly.

So, doing the math, the low figure yields a potential value of $3.5 million, while the high figure yields a potential value of $35 million.

To me, $3.5 million seems low. It’s not how I’d spend $3.5 million if I had it–I don’t–but I think I’d feel guilty paying that for it.

I’m not comfortable speculating how close $35 million is. High-end turn-of-the-previous-century German toys were extremely intricate and painstakingly assembled, almost entirely by hand, and that craftsmanship is reflected in their value today. I’ve seen Marklin stations that were hand painted but looked lithographed.

That’s the attraction. I found a Marklin O gauge crossing in a junk box at a train store one day. I picked it up, examined it, saw the trademark on it, and held it for a few minutes. “This may be the only Marklin piece you ever touch with your own hands,” I said to myself. That could be an exaggeration, but that was a good 8-9 years ago, and I haven’t touched anything made by Marklin since. Honestly, that particular item didn’t look all that different from the Lionel crossing that belonged to my dad, but that’s probably why it was in that junk box. Marklin track may be unremarkable, but I can’t think of much else they produced prior to WWII that would be.

I don’t know if I will ever get a chance to see this collection in person, but the nice thing is, thanks to the occasional article about it, even those who can’t see it in person can still enjoy it.

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