"What's it Worth?" - About Values

Everybody wants to know about values or what something is worth. It’s a main topic of conversation among collectors, and more email is sent to this website about values than any other topic. First, our policy….

Sorry but we can't provide appraisals. Due to email volume, any emails asking for appraisals, what something is worth, or pricing advice will not receive a reply.

Here’s why:

  • Liability. This website is non-commercial and all-volunteer. There is too much risk in providing a free appraisal to someone who could then turn around and sue us for overlooking some important point. In rare cases, railroadiana values have reached five figures, and four figures are not all that uncommon. So the stakes are getting high. There have been legal actions in other antique collecting fields around appraisals.
  • Not enough expertise. The field of railroadiana is vast. See the railroadiana glossary on the Key Lock & Lantern website for just a partial listing of different items. Very few people have the knowledge and experience to appraise all types of railroadiana, and we ain’t them. We don’t have a panel of experts available. See note 1.
  • Not enough information. Typically someone provides a verbal description of an item and wants a value. But critical details may be unintentionally omitted, and the information provided may not be accurate. Even if photos are provided, the quality of the image can vary greatly, and some details may be distorted or hidden in shadows. Making an appraisal online is just too risky.

Unfortunately we also don't have a list of appraisers. At this point in time, there is no certification process for railroadiana appraisers. So what advice can we offer?

Breaking up a collection. One reason people are interested in values is because they are looking to sell items that they inherited or are no longer interested in. See our Breaking Up a Collection article by Rob Hoffer for different ways of doing this.

What determines Values? As with antiques in general, the usual details such as age, condition, and rarity are obviously important. In addition there are other factors to keep in mind with specific categories. For example, lantern-collectors generally don't mind a certain amount of rust and wear, so minor amounts are not only OK but even good -- as an indication of authenticity. But a china collector wants to see only minor utensil marks at most, and other imperfections like chips, cracks, and spotting can seriously diminish value (unless the pattern is so rare than something in any condition is valuable). Lock and key collectors generally don’t want polished items – some wear and patina is good, even expected. And so on. See our web page of points to consider for specific categories of railroadiana.

There is another other “wild card” factor that must be mentioned in any discussion of values: the popularity or appeal of the railroad itself. This is easily something that a non-collector or general antique appraiser could miss. For that matter, even a veteran collector could miss it.

Many if not most railroadiana items are marked for a specific railroad, and this specific connection can make a huge difference in value. Some railroads have a certain romance or allure about them that provides additional value. For example, anything associated with Colorado, especially the narrow gauge lines, tends to bring a higher price. Certain individual railroads also have this same effect. For example, items from the New York, Ontario & Western, Western Maryland, Virginian, and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe seem to get special attention among collectors. Each geographic region tends to have its “favorite” lines that command more interest among collectors from that region and therefore more market value. If you're not from the region, it may be hard to know what these are. As that old “Music Man” song goes, “You gotta know the territory.”

Sometimes the combination of two common characteristics can add up to a valuable rarity. Example: The Dietz Vesta is one of the most common railroad lantern models. Those marked for the New York Central (NYC) are an inside joke within the hobby and may bring less than $40-$50 at auction (if that). Similarly, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was a large Eastern line, and B&O-marked lanterns are common. Numerous examples can be found on Ebay at any given time. But the combination of a B&O marking on a Dietz Vesta is an extreme rarity – one went for around $1500 at auction some years ago and may be worth even more today. Someone not knowing this and generalizing from a NYC Vesta value would be making a big mistake. Sometimes such precise information is needed for an accurate appraisal.

How do you find such information? Unfortunately, there are only so many resources that we can suggest.

Consult available Railroadiana price guides. There have been two reputable price guides published in recent years. One is “Railroad Collectibles: An Illustrated Value Guide, Fourth Edition” by Stanley Baker, published in 1997. This is out of print, although used copies can be found. It's also fairly out-of-date, although prices can be adjusted upwards. A second one is “Railroadiana II: The Official Price Guide for the Year 2011 and Beyond" by Sue Knous, published in 2011. See the Railroad Memories website. This guide is based largely on real auction prices and is excellent.

There are a number of general antique guides that provide values for selected railroadiana items. These can be found in any bookstore and are usually updated annually. While they *may* be accurate for the items covered, they tend to be very limited in overall usefulness. Most collectors have stories of seeing items in antique shows with laughable prices based on over-generalizations from such guides. For example, a dealer may use a tall-globe lantern price on a short-globe lantern of much less value or fail to take into account the difference between a rare railroad marking -- given in the price guide --and a very common one.

Do the research on Ebay. Anyone with an internet connection can monitor Internet auctions and thereby get the same kind of information that once took a lot of time and money to accumulate. Ebay is the main example, of course, and it has close to 20,000 railroadiana items up for auction at a given time. A small amount of time invested in following and noting final prices of items similar to the one in question can provide great insight into true values. There are also for-pay services that Ebay offers to obtain historical information on past prices.

Attend Railroadiana Shows. If you have an item that you think is valuable, take it to a railroadiana show or two and get reactions from dealers and attendees. Many (but probably not all) dealers will at least give you an opinion, and you can get a reaction from collectors who will certainly show interest if your item is indeed valuable. Collectors *love* these “walk-in” items at shows because (1) sometimes real treasures show up this way and (2) they add something more than the usual round of dealers.

Contact Local Appraisers. Obviously this can be risky if you find someone who tries to get by with only general knowledge of the railroadiana field. However, if your item requires real research, this may be the way to get it (if you don’t want to do it yourself). Some searching on the internet and in local antique shops may provide some leads here. There has been some talk about developing certification in railroadiana appraising, but to our knowledge nothing has come of this yet. We do not have a list of appraisers that we can refer people to.

Ultimately, you can just trust the market! If you want to sell an item quickly, put it on Ebay. This implies absolutely no commercial endorsement of Ebay, just a recognition that it is *the* game in town. Provided that it’s done right – see advice for selling online – this will reach a national audience, and the market will take it from there in setting the value. There are enough collectors who use Ebay nowadays that fair market values are almost always reached. People are sometimes worried about what reserve and starting price to set, but this requires determining an approximate value, and...well, we’ve been there before. Some sellers start auctions with no reserves and a minimum value of one cent and end up just fine.

This is about all we can offer by way of advice. In time, we may be able to offer more.

Comments from Collectors:

As an appraiser of fine and decorative art I would suggest one word of caution regarding your section on valuation and Ebay. Ebay IS NOT an arbiter of value. Numerous individuals place items on Ebay often not knowing what they have and receive arbitrary returns on their items. Realistic valuations for Fair Market Value can be obtained by a review of auction results. Retail rplacement values can be obtained by a review of what private and public collectors are asking for their items. -TSS 12/10/08

Note 1. Many collectors have strong feelings about providing free appraisals to the public or antique dealers. They say something like the following: “I spend a lot of time and money going to shows, subscribing to auction lists, and following the railroadiana market. Then some stranger wants me to give that knowledge away for free so they can make more money in a sale or internet auction. Why should I ?" Another common story: A collector is asked to help appraise a collection and puts a fair amount of time into it, hoping for a "first shot" at the collection. Then the owner turns around and offers it to someone else, leaving the first collector with nothing for his/her efforts. An experience or two like this tends to poison the well.

Note 2. This website has no commercial relationship whatsoever with Railroad Memories, which is a railroadiana auction service. But we can attest that it has a sterling reputation and has done a lot to advance the hobby. Check out their website, Railroad Memories.