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What Are Our Toy Trains "Worth"?

Updated: Aug 13


Are our Lionel PostWar trains a good investment? What are they worth?


Those not in the hobby usually exclaim "Wow, those trains must be worth a lot!"

In recent years, those in the hobby exclaim "Wow, prices are dropping!"


Both of the above statements are true at the same time. "How can that be?" one might ask. Well, the answer depends on one's interpretation if the words "worth" and "value".

It also depends on condition and rarity.


It's been my observation is that most common Post War Lionel items, in excellent* condition, are going for 7-10 times their original catalog price - just about keeping up with inflation.


Common Post War Lionel items, in good* or very good* condition, are going for 3-7 times their original catalog price.


Common Post War Lionel items, in fair* condition, are going for whatever parts value they may have.


*Generally accepted definitions:

Fair: Well scratched, chipped, rusted or warped

Good: Scratches, small dents, dirty

Very Good: Few scratches, clean, no dents or rust

Excellent: Minute scratches or nicks, no dents or rust

Mint/Like New: Absolutely unmarred, all original, unused and in crisp original boxes with original paperwork


I'll add that I expect trains in fair condition to not work and to be unrepairable - good for parts only. I expect good condition trains to be made able to work with some cleaning lube or minor repairs, trains in very good or excellent condition to run well after only the usual maintenance required. This being said, always ask the seller about their operating condition, and test run them, if possible, before purchase.


What do the above observations have to do with what our trains are currently worth, or if one can make an investment profit selling PostWar trains? Not much, if anything! Prices on all but mint/like new or truly rare trains have been dropping over the last few years. Why? IMHO, mostly because those with nostalgia for those trains are aging out or are no longer with us. For the most part the younger generations replacing them have a greater interest in the new trains - scale, digital controls, sound, etc.


A common refrain from dealers and those selling their trains is "I can't sell it for that, I have more than that into it". These sellers will be holding on to these trains until they bring their prices down to be competitive in the current market. Too bad they don't realize that the "play value" they had with these trains more than makes up for any "monetary loss".


Rarity, whether based on small numbers of original production, variations, or conditions rated mint* or like new*, can, and do, sell for sky's the limit prices - true collectors (as opposed to operator/accumulators like me) want the best and are willing to pay for it!


As an operator/accumulator, I prefer buying excellent - excellent plus rated trains, as I run them all. As you can see from the definitions above, if I bought mint/like new trains at the prices they command, and run them, they become real nice trains in excellent plus condition. Sort of like buying a new car, driving it for a week, and then trying to resell it for what you paid for it. Ain't gonna happen - you're gonna take a 30% loss.


I also sometimes buy trains in good condition, as I enjoy the challenge in customizing them into something I want that was never produced. Examples of what I'm talking about can be found here One of a Kind Cabooses (Cabeese?) (warrenvillerailroad.com) and here Building a Standard Gauge Diner (warrenvillerailroad.com) . These one-of-a-kind trains provide a lot of "play value" to me.


As I hinted to a few paragraphs ago, when using the word "value", one must, IMHO, preface it with the word "play" or "monetary".


For me, the best investment is the train's "play value". Buy, and maintain, excellent condition trains, run and enjoy them for years, and you can still get a fair monetary return on them should you wish, or need, to sell them. I can't think of anything else you can buy used and do better than this after enjoying it- can you? The enjoyment of playing with these trains has a huge "worth".


Collectors relish having the best or rarest, and enjoy and show them like the works of art that they are.

I've found that many collectors enjoy the best of both worlds by having and enjoying trains in both excellent (to run) and mint (to admire) conditions.


How does one know what to pay for trains or what to ask for when selling them? Where do I buy or sell them?

Some research is necessary.

At this point I'm not talking about selling huge collections, or collections of rare or mint/like new items, but the PostWar trains in average collections.


There are several price guides for sale. The prices in these are usually somewhat high and should be used only as a starting point in your pricing plan, IMHO.


There are also "for sale or trade" publications included with membership in the major train clubs like the TCA (Train Collectors Association), LOTS (Lionel Operating Train Society) and LCCA (Lionel Collectors Club of America). They can also help you pin point on specific items you may be looking for or selling, and usually list several of each item item for sale so that you can compare prices

If you've been in the hobby for a while and have been attending train shows/swap meets (This prior post may be of interest: Tis Train Show Season! (warrenvillerailroad.com) ) you probably have a "feel" for an appropriate asking or offer price to start with.


If you are new to the hobby, attend local train shows/swap meets and see what others are selling similar items for. Be aware though, that if you spend too much time comparing between vendors, you may find that an item you were interested in sold before you come back to that vendor's table.

These local shows are not usually the best place to sell or buy mint/like new or rare items as the usual attendees are not the "big hitters" with large amounts of cash in their pockets. For this same reason vendors usually do not bring these items to these smaller shows.


Visit EBAY and see what similar items are going for.


Ask experienced friends for guidance.


For selling large collections of postwar there are several auction houses and resellers who are willing to buy the whole lot.

From the resellers you can expect to get about 50% of what you could get if you sold these items yourself at shows or EBAY.

The auction houses take a cut, but they also do the work and have large audiences looking for the best of the best, or the rarest of the rarest.

Both of these may also charge you for truck rental and pickup.

Auction houses and resellers usually advertise in magazines such as Classic Toy Trains and O Gauge Railroading.

Important notes: Auction houses charge a "Buyer's Fee" - usually 15-20%. This can affect the price you get when selling as buyers take this fee into account when deciding how much to bid. Obviously, it will affect your cost when buying.

Auction houses also charge commission to sellers - up to 30%!


For rare or mint/like new items a large show such as the one put on by the Eastern Division in York, PA every April and October, can also be your answer if you are a TCA member and wish to spend two and a half days manning a table there. "York" is also a great place to buy or sell common items


So, what are our PostWar Lionel trains worth? Your guess is as good as mine.


I asked for thoughts and feedback on this subject and, boy, did I get them - THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH. The general consensus seems to be that the worth of our trains is, indeed, their PLAY VALUE, and the ENJOYMENT we receive from them.


Here are the thoughtful and enlightening responses received:


10 years ago my grandson wanted me to get out the trains from my dad's collection. They had been in boxes wrapped in news paper from the 50's. I begrudgingly got them out and we started laying track on the floor. I told him I had to go upstairs for a moment. While I was gone the little **** had the transformer hooked up and one of the engines running. Wow I thought after all these years and it still runs. I then thought these have got to be worth big money. After checking in train collectibles and their value reality hit home. That engine was listed for $80 to $150. Now if l had the original box that was a different story. Seems the box had more value than the engine. But the big thing was that started a love for this hobby . Seeing that old train running on the tracks and the delight in my grandsons face triggered my emotions and made me a kid again.


Well here I am at 80 still running trains , building a layout for who ME. Value for me is remembering how I felt 70yrs ago when my dad and I were running trains. Now it's seeing the excitement in little and old when they visit my layout. That to me is VALUE.

BGBill Grafmiller

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The problem with worth is educating those who are either 1) new to the hobby or 2) found some trains in the attic of some dead relative and think they have a gold mine.  I took some time on one occasion to discuss the latter with a CL seller as i was interested in what he had...just not the crazy price he wanted.  I have a feeling they ended up in a dumpster.  I also recently realistically estimated a collection for someone whose husband passed and she was able to get within a few hundred$ of my estimate for everything from a collection buyer and not get hosed.  Unfortunately, there is no good way to reach everyone who may be in that boat.   As for those entering the hobby, hopefully they end up with a reputable dealer who steers them right and they stay OFF the bay until they know what they are doing.  In the end, they're only worth what others will pay or, as others have said, what they bring you for happiness.

Farmalljoe

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In dollars, no where near what you may think they are...

As to the nostalgic value, immeasurable.

When reentering 0 scale in the last third of my life I purchased each and every P/W Lionel item I had as a child only in the later scale sized 2 rail version.

Then the "fever" peaked which prompted the addition of three 3 rail add-on train runs on different levels on my 2 rail layout to complete the full circle.

Only wish my father could see what he started.

Tom Tee

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I'm good on the physical trains part. No realy buyers remorse or worries what they're worth. The bigger issue for me is the investment of time into my layout. I make a point not to spend all my time isolated in the basement knowing one day it'll all get dismantled.

PRRick

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I mostly agree with the article.  What is not mentioned is how mint and LN items sold at auction houses have actually been going up in price, especially when you factor in the buyers premiums; while the sellers may be getting considerably less due to the fees charged.  This also applies to truly rare items.

Lyle Leverich

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I collect things. Trains, Cameras, Art & Buildings.  Other than the Art, I try to explain to people that mostly I am collecting industrial design.  I suppose I should add that there are a lot of TV's, Radios, Electric Shavers and Kitchen related items.


I have never run any of the trains I have acquired in the last 40 years or so.  For the most part they sit on shelves.  Williams, Weaver and Mike's make up 95% of what I have.  I measure everything against Postwar Lionel.  Using that basis for comparison I consider all of the engines as 'art pieces'.  I agree the early Williams does not really hold up well against a newer MTH but if you measure it against Postwar Lionel, it is a piece of art.  The quality of that 'art' continued to improve through Weaver into the present.


Value?  Don't care.  Not going to sell anything.  The real value is in the enjoyment.

Bill DeBrooke

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John

A few thoughts:


1.) our hobby (particularly postwar Lionel 1946- 1969) is in what the collector world would call 'late phase' - which indicates that the market is well known, collectors are only after the very very best and willing to pay for it, and that there are less buyers for the rest, hence the growing divide between the selling prices of the LN/Mint/boxed vs everything else. For other hobbies that have been through this transition, the same price patterns have happened.


2.) I see more and more of the 'good stuff' finding it's way to the major train auction houses, and getting the best selling prices. Still good stuff on the tables, but less than in the past. Some of the auction houses are very picky about what they will market and sell, but get a reputation and following for accuracy and providing the best examples. There are other auction houses that will sell everything, but their selling prices are indicative of my previous comment.


3.) Ebay: going through 'sold' items gives a pretty good idea of what the market will fetch, much better than any price guide, which tend to be inflated for all but the EX/mint categories, so good for understanding what is out there to buy, not necessarily prices.


4.) For postwar in general, a lot of collections coming on to the market and less buyers. So I suspect prices will trend down. We had a spike overall in prices for trains during and just after COVID, lots of train guys with time and money, more competition. Already seeing that bubble going away. The best stuff will always retain value, but today as with the better standard gauge items in the 1990's, are selling for way less in real terms than they did 20 - 30 years ago. (Real terms being inflation adjusted)


5.) Good points on financial value vs 'play value'. Collectors enjoy seeing the good stuff on their shelves, operators enjoy playing with the stuff. A recent video on YouTube of an exceptionally rare and pricy Ives prewar Prosperity Special set (recent sales price well over $100K) operating on a well decorated standard gauge layout, shows that there are train guys who will have fun with even the rarest and most fragile items.


6.) the NMRA (who are they?) have had a motto - 'Model Railroading is Fun' - we are in this hobby to enjoy these wonderful trains.

I don't expect to make money on my trains, but I have always followed sage advice from my dad: You can pay the high price right away and get the item, or 'wait for it to come to you' at the price you can afford. That advice has worked out many many times, and there is no item that I would die to have that won't show up sometime in the future.


For what it's worth! I'm having a blast, have made lots of good friends, had fun both building, fixing, restoring and running trains since I was a kid.

Jim Waterman

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My trains are not worth anything monetary to me. That’s for my kids to figure out!

Tom

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They are worth what someone will pay for them.  To me they are worth my happiness.  I sell occasionally and depending on the item I will let it go for less just because I'm not using it and if someone else will it's worth the bigger loss. 

Marty

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If I were worried about what my trains were worth monetarily, I would be in a different hobby! 

:  As for their "play" value, that's more of my concern.  I have some that mostly sit on the shelf, just because I think they really look cool or I have a special attachment to that model for some reason.  I have others that I run more often.  Finally, I have some primarily for the entertainment of visitors.

Gunrunnerjohn


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Sound and thoughtful analysis but I tend to agree with your comment at the bottom of the blpg

tmcclaff (Tom)

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My trains are not worth anything monetary to me. That’s for my kids to figure out!

Bruce

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I have enjoyed my trains for 70  years and there is no Price on the enjoyment that they provide. EBAY sez that they are Worth more according to sold results.

Mikey

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I have been building a page on Buying Toy Trains also.  Mine is based on my experiences over the last 6 years building my collection.   I think we align on many points.  In the end value is what you get out of it.


I think long ago Lionel got it right in their publicity about their trains: a lifetime investment in happiness.

Arnold

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I value my trains for their intrinsic value -- the pleasure they provide me. Extrinsically, they're worth what someone is willing to pay for them.

Matt Jackson

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I am busily and happily draining the fun equity out of my trains.  I could care less about whatever residual value they might have in the eyes of others.  I've weathered them, re-motored them, repainted them, glued stuff like added details to them, took a Dremel to some of them, etc.  I've never, ever worried about "ruining the value" of them.  They are providing full value to me!  

Bob Bartizek

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There isn't any way I could put a dollar value on my trains - the fun of the hunt for an elusive piece to add to the collection, the joy of building and photographing dioramas, the thrill of having some of those pictures make the front cover of TCQ and the picture section in CTT, the carpet central constructs and what they have meant to me and to my many visitors over the years, the sense of satisfaction after completing a build either from a kit or scratch, ...and on and on.

For the final hammer at the auction - whatever they sell for.

For me - priceless.

Robert S. Butler

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Liked your blog post and agree with most of it.  And "I can't sell it for that - I have more in it" always elicits a chuckle, but that attitude is all too common. 


Just a couple of additions... First, if someone is searching ebay for rare items or obscure variations, they really need to do their homework to avoid fakes.  I'm not into rarity, but if I was, I would probably stick with buying in person from people I know, or at least asking for unbiased knowledgeable help at a TCA meet.  Second, my experience with for-sale listings in the TCA and LCCA publications is that the asking prices are generally wildly optimistic.

Mallard4468

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They are the toys that make me happy.  If I was concerned about value, I would have sold them thirty years ago.

Ggrampstrains

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I am firmly in the camp that the value of the trains is for fun. I think whether someone is a collector or an operator, the real value is in what joy they bring. Yes, there are items in this world, the rare, the items in mint shape, that are collectible and will appreciate in value, and if someone is doing it for that reason then the monetary value will matter, since that is why they are doing it.


I don't track the value of what I have, because I see it as a sunk cost into having fun. Doing that, if the time comes to sell whatever I have, whatever I get back is gravy, if I get a nice meal out of it for my wife and myself or maybe even help pay for something nice for her or my son, I'll be happy. I could see myself even giving it away to someone that I know will have fun with it and enjoy it.


The person who dies with the best toys dies a happy person

Bigkid

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$337,278.00

Donald

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My trains are toys that I bought cheap and would never bring more than 50% of what I paid.

If I had big money to spend on my happiness, . . . I'd be heading to Vegas baby!

Mannyrock

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"Fluffy Bun" worth: Priceless.  A capstone to the gate barring distractions, misery, and mayhem from any dark side of life.


"Monetary" worth:  What someone will pay...long after I'm gone.  It's all recorded/inventoried in an Excel tome.  Included are two columns for nearly every item, labeled "Paid" and "Value", the latter of which is a mix of MSRP and secondary market sales data, including mo/yr.  If it was a kit-build or scratch-build by myself, the value is pretty much the same as I paid for the kit/materials..no one ever pays for what your time on earth is really worth when you're having this much fun, do they?!


None of which matters to me while I'm still here.


Besides, my wife is into the hobby.  She should survive me by about 20 years, comparing family histories and genetics.  In the longest run, it's her call.

dkdkrd

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Does it really matter? It's disposable income anyway. You had to know you were throwing away your money. If it takes away stress(although alot of times it adds stress) and makes you happy, then I guess it was worth it.

jini5

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"So, what are our trains worth?"  Like others, I enjoy the hobby and will continue to enjoy it as long as possible.  Not sure about your trains, but I'd say pennies on the dollar for mine.  My wife supports my hobby, but unless she is hit by a bus, will outlive me (genetics).  She will almost immediately downsize the house, so I think she will contact some folks I provided her to see if they will just take the trains off her hands.  I know of no family that wants them.

CAPPilot

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For a while, most of what I have was family owned from the 50's, I was the youngest and had a Scout set.  Now, 70 some odd years later I am still purchasing what I like, still have all of the old stuff and recently got into Tin Plate.  As was said in an earlier post, this is money gone, sunk, but the restful time spent doing things with these toys of ours is priceless.  Working on that darn plastic kit-bashed overpass for days now, 15 minutes here, 45 minutes there, wait for the glue to dry...I feel like a kid, and that ain't bad folks.  Enjoy what ya got!

Chuck242

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Somewhere between priceless and worthless. Depends who you ask...My wife, my kids or my granddaughter.

Tom Densel

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My trains are priceless, as several have already commented.  The infinite joy my 2065 locomotive by Lionel has brought me since I was 4 years old can not be attached to a monetary measurement.  Since getting back into the hobby almost 20 years ago, my trains have not only given me countless hours of relaxation and joy, they have also introduced me to other hobbies too ... such as writing stories and photography.  

trumptrain

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Since re- entering this great hobby, I've amassed a collection of over 40 engines, 180 plus freight cars, and 40 plus passenger cars, buildings, bridges, etc.  AND I run all my trains, regardless of their collector ( or imagined/projected ) value.  I've never seen a hearse pulling a trailer with a model train layout ( although that might be a humorous project to model ... lol ) so I enjoy my trains to the max while I'm still here to do so.  I also find great enjoyment in sharing my layout by having visitors come by.  

My trains can still spark my imagination just as they did when I was a kid.  For all this there is no price tag.


Some experiences:


When we lived in Oregon we made acquaintances with the antique dealers in town - and I bought many of the trains that they were selling. Eventually, they started to call me when a box of trains wandered into the store for sale and would ask pricing advice. I always started with a question - "What time frame are you willing to have these in your inventory?" I game them some pricing advice in accordance - my advice went along these lines.


Willing to wait for the "once in a lifetime" buyer who had one as a kid and it is gone, has thick wallet and is willing to pay almost anything to recover what he lost. Dwell time indeterminate but likely to be years.


Wanting to turn over in six months to a year. Still means waiting for a well heeled collector to wander through town and spot the item.


Wanting to turn over quickly at a small to medium profit. Likely dwell time less than six months.


Another thought is that the worth of an item is what you would pay for a second copy of the same thing.


Nothing made to be a collectable is likely to be a collectable (think collector plates).


Trains have a cycle:


Standard Gauge went through the cycle in the seventies and eighties. Buyers would pay $125 for a slightly rusty gondola. By the early 2000s that $125 gondola was now about $15 (the parts value). Prewar O gauge didn't tank as far since there is some blurring of the lines due to being able to operate on postwar track.


Postwar is moving through this cycle now. About 5 years ago I became the "train guy" for a local auction house. Job is to take a collection and curate it into sellable lots with a rough $100 per lot target as a minimum. We were selling individual post war freight cars in a lot. Couple of years later that became two to three cars per lot. Now it is 10 to 20 - about the same as HO trains. Rusty stuff has basically no value. Curiously track used to be difficult to sell but now can be sold in lots of 50 to 100 pieces even with some rust.


Antique people have determined a 50 year cycle for general antiques (mid century modern is hot at the moment). Looks like trains have about a 60 to 70 year cycle.


The buyers at auction are more operator hobbyists and fewer collector hobbyists - except for the absolutely mint or incredibly rare items - they have held their values.


Quality counts. Solid, heavy postwar trains outsell the cheapened, flimsy modern era items. And there is some value in the repairability of postwar items that the newer and failure prone electronic stuff doesn't present.


In summary - the above are somewhat random thoughts on your topic but may be applicable

The value is in the enjoyment - not a lot in what you can recover by reselling. If you want an investment work with a financial investment advisor.

Bill Drake

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Somewhere between priceless and worthless. Depends who you ask...My wife, my kids or my granddaughter.

Yes; if you're selling they are priceless to you on your table and if you are buying them they seem to diminish in value on someone else's table.

Tom Densel

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I cannot place a monetary value on a hobby that constantly renews itself, is multi-faceted, keeps me physically active, and, together with books, provides a focus almost equal to my family.   Mark

barrister.2u

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My wife and I used to attend many, many movies (in person at a theater) a number of years ago - lots o' pleasure with virtually nothing to show for it. Now I buy trains which also provide pleasure, and at least have something to show for the $ spent!!

George

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I just saw a list of things that the next generation does not want to inherit.

Along with beanie babies, china and silverware was model trains.


Only heard of one model RR remaining intact with the new home owner joining in the swap meets as a brand new old 0 scaler.

While working there was quite a few times  that real estate agents contracted with me to dispose of remaining layouts.  Mostly HO, some PW, mostly dumpster grade.

Reply by Tom Tee

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My trains are worth everything to me simply because they bring enjoyment. I enjoy selling some and buying some. Never has been an investment for me. When I’m gone, if no one in my family wants them they can give them away as far as I’m concerned. I’ll look down and say “it was a good ride

romiller49

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I'm not sure what is meant by Stouts being "fair but not cheap".  IIRC, they charge a 30% commission, which isn't unreasonable.  One needs to also consider what kind of prices they get.  I sold a few things through them a couple of years ago (nothing rare) and I netted more than I would have gotten selling one item at a time on ebay, with zero hassle.  I can't speak to how much they charge for pickup (I live close enough that I dropped my stuff off), but they might be willing to pick up a collection that contains 500 pieces of mint / near-mint postwar pieces.  Definitely worth a call, IMO.

Len

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It’s always good to assemble an inventory list so you know what you have. You can do this on an excel spread sheet. Your columns should include quantity, manufacturer, catalog number, brief item description, condition presence of original box and two values. . The Greenberg guide will give two values for an item one for the highest quality and a second value for lesser. . In an auction scenario, it’s likely that an item will sell generally as part of a lot at somewhere in between those values in most cases. 


So, if you have a list of 500 items, the auction gross sale will be between the sum of the low and high value totals for the list. 


You might want to find a decent auction house near the collection to minimize shipping costs. Most auction houses will have a seller's premium but to put it in perspective, they will catalog the items, promote the sale, collect the auction bids, package #nd ship the items to winning bidders. You get a check for the net proceeds. 

Lawrence

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