Collector's Corner: Full steam ahead for toy train market

Mini locomotives are fetching higher sums at auction than ever before. It's not just for kids says Gwyn Jones

Forget the anorak image. Toy train enthusiasts are not a quirky minority and the mini locomotives they collect are steaming ahead in the auction rooms with demand outstripping supply.

"There's serious money being spent right across the spectrum," says Michael Bond, a valuer with Vectis Auctions. "It's a very strong market," adds Lee Gotch of the toy department at Bonhams. "Last week we had a sale and, of the 50 lots of toy trains, just one was unsold. I believe the market will continue like this - the interest in toy and model trains hasn't abated for as long as I can remember and still doesn't show any signs of slowing down. There are a lot of people still coming into it."

Trains are in a different category from other toys. While many were made for children, there are more accurate models - at a higher price - that were originally aimed at adults as well as children. In other words, the toy train market has always attracted adult collectors and is a more mature market than, say, Dinky cars.

Having said that, prices have rocketed over the past 10 years. "The obvious models, such as Hornby and Bassett-Lowke, are very popular," says Gotch. "For those from the 1930s in good condition, prices are extraordinary compared with five or six years ago. Some have even doubled."

In a recent Bonhams auction, a Hornby O gauge number 2 special tank engine locomotive sold in excellent boxed condition for £650; five years ago it would have made £350. Likewise a Nestlé's Milk tank wagon, which four or five years ago would have been worth £400 or so, sold for £1,400.

Even the accessories are doing well, with a watchman's hut and a plate layer's hut together with a milk churn cart fetching £300, about double the price of five years ago.

"I think the run-of-the-mill stuff made in large quantities has probably plateaud in price," adds Gotch. "Among the traditional original toy trains such as Marklin, Bing, Hornby and Bassett-Lowke, I don't think prices will stop rising because it's getting harder to find good items."

It isn't only the older engines that are fetching big money. "A company called Wrenn took over the production of Hornby Dublo trains when its parent company Meccano ceased trading in 1964," explains Bond.

"Wrenn expanded the market and although it separated from Hornby in 1972, it continued trading until 1992. Towards the end from about 1988 onwards, Wrenn made a lot of locomotives in small runs and some of those are now fetching £1,000 to £1,500 for what was a £100 engine."

However, Bond does have a word of warning for would-be collectors. "There are lots of forgeries in the Wrenn market: reproduction boxes, instruction booklets and locomotives that have been resprayed, renamed and renumbered," he says. "We can spot them through experience but we've had quite a few come through here that people thought were genuine; some collectors have been duped out of a lot of money."

In 1995 Hornby Railways moved production to China and became Hornby. There are already some people collecting mint-condition boxed items from when the company was based in Margate. "There are lots of people interested in railways in one way or another," says Bond. "Even though kids are playing computer games you will still have model railways in years to come - this market will never die."

Gotch adds that Vectis has clients who spend thousands of pounds. One particular collector has spent several million pounds buying rare trains - in that context he believes these popular boys' toys will never run out of steam.

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