Buying Trains and Values

People ask what Lionel trains are worth. For me value is in the fun with the family.   I tinker and fix.  I get many non running and make them run like new.  Grand kids love to run the train.  Many adults love to run the train also.   

For economic value I see there are 3 factors.  Condition, Availability and Demand.  I call it C.A.D. 

Condition is key.  Too many people forget this.  Oh it's old, it's Lionel, it's valuable, well maybe. As condition goes down from the top level "New In Box" class, value drops dramatically.  Even small scratches may drop the value of an item quickly.   Think of an old used car.  If paint is bad and not running, you may not be able to give it away. 

Thankfully the train hobby hasn't fallen into the depths of "all original" that the car hobby has.  I see no value in a 1920 blitzen automobile that looks like it was left in a swamp for 50 years, but it is kept unrestored so it is all "original". 

Availability.  I list availability since scarcity and rarity are very subjective when it comes to Lionel.  People start inventing reasons things are scarce. 

Example a current trend is to find out if the painted tender body has a single color plastic underneath or "multi-color" thinking the multi-color is something special.  Nope.  Lionel was a business.  With plastic injection molding you have leftover plastic in gates and sprues.   The same as the plastic pieces that held the model car or airplane parts you used to glue together as a kid.   When you get enough of this left over plastic, you put it all in the melt and use it.  Since it could come from 1 or more colors, you end up with a multi-color plastic body.  Paint over it and who cares, until someone thinks it is special.

Also as the perceived value of an item goes up, the tendency to hoard or collect multiples of the same thing goes up.  Which tends to dry up the supply driving the cost up more.

Demand.  If 50 people want an item and there are 49 or less available, demand may be high.  If 50 people want an item and 51 or more are available, demand is low.   Demand varies.  Lionel was a top "toy"maker in the world in the 1950's.   Availability is still strong, Lionel made a lot of trains. Many people took care of them or lovingly stored them away.  Many parts are still available for restoration.   Supply is still abundant for many items after 1946. 

Collector value is a never ending study and like the stock market, you can get burned.  Original releases tend to have high value, only if in excellent condition.  New in Box or very close to it.   

Believing the 1984 reproduction of the prewar 763 has similar value to the original is a fantasy.  It may only be worth 5-10% of the original, if that.

Why does a scale model 1950 773 engine and 2426 tender rate a high value?  That one is obvious, it is a top end engine only supplied 1 year.   Why don't the newer versions rate a similar value? They aren't the original and the original was a "better" quality in most cases.  The newer versions are readily available while the originals are not.

Why does a cheap 1959 Black Lionel Lines tanker with a Circle L that came with an Alaskan set demand up to $100 or more? Many of the other tankers from the period are worth $15 or less?

Availability and Demand.   People want to recreate the Alaskan set it came with and the car was made only 1 year. 

When the economy is up, demand is up, when the economy is down demand usually goes down.   Unless some investors start saying "Lionel Trains are a good investment".   I saw this happen in the hot-rod market.

Some other things to understand when buying trains

If you want to build a collection, study the hobby, make a plan, think about it, think some more and then follow through getting what makes you happy.  If you don't have a plan or continually change your plan, the costs can get out of control.  If you want to collect trains as an "investment", good luck, you will probably go broke.

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Last update May 3 2023