Appraising the Value of Toy Model Trains

Model antique steam engine and coal car.

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If you are trying to determine the value of a toy model train set, this is a common quandary. Simply put, the set is worth whatever a buyer would be willing to pay for it. But, if you are trying to get a ballpark figure, there are a few good ways to place value on model trains or any other collectible. Ultimately, the value of your trains is determined by the market itself.

Comb the Market

One way to get a good idea of what the market will pay is to sample the market. If there is a hobby shop that sells used trains or a train show in your area, visit and look around. Keep in mind that the price you see on a tag is not necessarily what you should expect to get. A dealer or store owner is looking to make a profit. If a model can sell for $20, chances are the dealer is only going to be willing to pay between $5 and $10 to acquire it.​

Online auction sites like eBay and some specialized model train auction sites allow you to eliminate the middleman, and you have access to a much broader market. A caveat, however, is that it can be much more difficult to compare their trains to your train when all you have to go on is a thumbnail image. Sometimes something as simple as the number on the side of the car can make a big difference in the value of a model.

Trainz is a popular auction site dedicated specifically to model trains. In addition to just browsing the auctions for prices, this site features information pages and is focused on collectors. Many forums have buying and selling groups as well.

Also, as with any item, asking prices are not sale prices. It is important to search sold items and not just active listings.

Read Up

While there is a buyer for just about everything, certain trains have a larger collectors market than others. O-gauge trains of the 1950s, for example, have been a prime collectors market for decades. As such, there are collectors guides written by those in the know to help others in the hobby put a value on what they have. In recent years, later-model O-gauge and even HO-scale trains have grown in popularity.

Collector's guides will break most models down by more than just product number. Condition and production run variations along with other details will be listed to help narrow your search and your value range. Just remember, a collector's guide is just that, a guide. The values are estimates, not actual quotes, and they are only as accurate as they are current.

Get an Appraisal

Approach store owners, dealers, and auctioneers for an appraisal. Remember, most will have a motive to make a profit off of buyers and sellers.

Museums and other non-profit collecting organizations have an ethical conflict of interest and they usually will not offer any appraisals as a matter of course.

For an honest, unbiased opinion of value, your safest bet is a licensed appraiser. The American Society of Appraisers is an international organization that can put you in touch with the right appraiser for you. Expect to pay a fair price for the assessment, even if all you want is to satisfy your curiosity about your old trains in the attic and have no intention to sell.

Browse Around

"It looks just like mine," you think. But, are you really sure? Lots of small things can make a big difference in the value of your model train.

These are the basics to remember when comparison shopping and when talking to an appraiser.

  • Condition: Is it new-in-the-box or is there some reassembly required? This can have a big impact on what a collector is willing to pay. Condition obviously affects value, but it is only one factor. Even parts can fetch a good price if they are the right parts. Also, trains that were cheap when new are likely to still be worth very little as collectibles compared to higher cost and quality models. At the very least, it is a good idea to clean your models before getting an appraisal and test them to make sure they operate.
  • Rarity: Did the train come from a one-time run or has this model been in production for 30 years? If everybody already has one, chances are they won't pay much for another. However, yesterday's flops can be tomorrow's sought-after collectibles. This is why you have to follow the market trends as closely as you can.
  • Variations: Even a long production run can yield prized collectibles. If a model was made for 20 years but only had a red roof for one of them, you can bet the red-roof version fetches a higher price.
  • Modifications: Changes made to a model after its production alters its condition. Some modifications that are good for operations, like replacing the motor, may depreciate its value for a collector in search of something original. Adding details and changing paint can make a rare original worthless or boost the price on a common item.
  • The "It" Factor: Some trains just have "it." Call it a universal appeal, call it popularity, whatever it is: Some models are just more in demand.

Determine Its Worth to You

Ultimately, a train's worth isn't always determined by market value. Toy trains can be family heirlooms and a connection to your past. An appraiser can value your trains, however, your memories are priceless.