Value of collectible toy trains loses steam with missing parts

By Terry Maurer, Special to the Herald September 7, 2008 

Among fond childhood memories is the Christmas the electric train set was under the tree.

It was shiny, the engine was bright yellow and if you cranked the transformer way up, it would go fast enough to jump the tracks. Today, those trains and cars and accessories are collectible. In this What's It Worth we answer a reader's question about their model railroad crane car.

Q. My Lionel train set isn't in the best condition. There's some rust underneath a few of the cars. But this railroad crane car is just dusty, not damaged. I always thought it was unusual. Can you give me some details and a possible value? Thanks.

-- Dave in Pasco.

A. The history of Lionel toy trains is a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. Founded in 1902, the company issued many cars, engines and accessories up until World War II, when the factory converted to war materials production.

When hostilities ceased, Lionel quickly came back in the toy train market. By 1953, sales were nearly $33 million. Then things fell apart. Tastes changed, kids got more interested in toy cars, a recession hit and by 1958 Lionel was over $1 million in the red.

The rest of the story tells of questionable management, unrelated ventures into other businesses such as making boat motors, moving production offshore, bankruptcy, emerging from bankruptcy and then going broke, again.

Lionel still is around today, doing business as a designer and importer of toy trains. They are even issuing modern version of the older models, including this Bucyrus Erie Crane Car.

This is a model of an actual railroad crane and, like all Lionel toys, is an accurate reproduction. The "real life" railroad crane was made in Bucyrus, Ohio, and was used in the construction of the Panama Canal starting in about 1905.

Your original toy was produced between 1946 and 1950. While it looks to be an unusual piece, in reality these are commonly-seen cars. There are at least six major variations collectors have identified. The most valuable is one that came with a silver-colored cab.

In mint condition, these cars can be had for between $175 and $225.

This example is missing at least one part, a pulley and hook that hung from the end of the crane. One of the hand crank wheels that operates the mechanism also may be long gone.

Incomplete is death to values in the collectible train arena. Collectors want everything to be there and the toy to be in excellent condition to fetch top prices.

This example would be valued at no more than $50.

Q. Before giving a set of eight sterling teaspoons from my mother to my grandson I'd like to know their value. On the back of the handles each is marked "Sterling Pat. Jan. 28: 08" Most of the spoons are also engraved "L P Moore," which is a mystery as no one by that name is in our family's genealogy. They measure about 51/4 inches in length. What can you tell me?

-- Laurel in Richland

A. There's something of a "value pecking order" for flatware -- knives, forks, spoons and serving pieces used at table.

Generally speaking, you'll find stainless steel at the bottom of the list and handmade sterling by famous companies at the top. Stainless made overseas will be less valuable in most instances that stainless made in the U.S. Sterling made by firms such as Tiffany, Gorham, Towle, Georg Jensen, and in the West companies like San Francisco's Shreve or Vanderslice will command a premium.

Silver plated ware falls in between, with some patterns considered very collectible and some being very difficult for dealers to sell.

These spoons are in the upper 50 percent of the collector's range, but aren't anywhere near the top.

In addition to providing the "backmarks" on her spoons, Laurel also told us each has a stamped mark in the shape of the letter "Y," with the letters "R," "L" and "B" on each arm. The "Y" is actually a series of three conjoined squares, with one of those other letters in each square. It looks like a "Y" and is one of the trademarks of Lunt Silversmiths.

Lunt was formed in Greenfield, Mass., in 1902 and still is in business today at the same location.

This pattern is "Monticello," and was introduced in 1908. About that same time Lunt also had sterling silver patterns called "Jefferson" and "Mount Vernon." You can see a patriotic theme running through those pre-World War I years. Monticello was dropped from production in 1997.

While very attractive, these teaspoons are of little interest to collectors, quite plentiful and don't command high prices today. Companies that specialize in providing replacement pieces for flatware services will charge between $15 and $20 each.

* Terry Maurer, a Tri-Cities personal property appraiser and antique dealer, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. You may submit your antiques and collectible questions to What's It Worth by e-mail to whatsitworth@clearwire.net

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