How Do I Find the Value of an Antique Toy Train?

Updated March 14, 2022
George Olieux of George's Trains Ltd. shows off a model train car - Getty Editorial Use

If you've ever had the pleasure of rummaging through the boxes of your parent's or grandparent's childhood toys, then you've probably found a toy train or two which you raucously chugged across the wooden floors. However, you might want to be a little more careful next time you absentmindedly pick up a coal car, as it could be worth a nice chunk of change. Antique toy train values might fluctuate depending on collector's interest, but that doesn't mean the toy train sitting on your grandfather's desk isn't worth anything at all.

Hot Tips for Determining Antique Toy Train Values

When it comes to amateur evaluations, there're several steps you can take to determine the value of an antique toy train. However, for insurance purposes, for example, you should forgo an at-home appraisal and take your trains to an appraiser that's experienced in antique and vintage trains. While you can get a good idea of the estimated value of your train by doing some research yourself, it'll be a ballpark figure only.

First, Identify the Type of Train You Have

The first step in finding the value of your train is to identify it. Toy trains didn't run on tracks until 1881. Before that, the trains had wheels and the child would push it along the floor, much like the string-connected toy cars of today.

For a quick identification reference, you can turn to any identification guides that you might be able to find on the subject. A good identification guide is always your best friend when it comes to identifying almost anything. Start looking at your local library, and if your branch doesn't have a guide, then ask the librarian about an interlibrary loan. This may take a few weeks, but save you money in the long run. Most people won't use an identification guide for toy trains more than once or twice, so it's not always worth trying to purchase one online for yourself.

Use Gauge to Determine Age

One of the main ways that antique toy trains are identified is the gauge. This refers to the width of the track, measured across the inner edges of the rails. Standard gauge is 2⅛-inches across and was popular in the United States through the early 1900s up to the Depression and World War II. During the Depression, the tracks were made smaller as a cost effective way to continue producing the trains. This gauge was 1¼-inches. Thus, you can check out your model train's gauge width as one way to get an idea of what age the train might have been built in.

Lionel Lines, Model Train Exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum of Art Chadds Ford (PA) July 2018

Determine Your Train's Brand and Rarity

Rarity sometimes does help determine the value of a train, but not always. Some items are rare, but because collectors really aren't interested in them, they don't have much market value. Train collectors, perhaps more than any other type of collector, have a definite set of likes and dislikes that helps to set the value of the items that they collect.

For instance, brands play a huge role in collecting toy trains. The three top brands that collectors look out for are:

  • American Flyer
  • Lionel
  • Marx

These brands command top values at auction even if they weren't creating trains as early as other manufacturers were. Thankfully, it's usually really easy to see which of these brands' toy trains you might have since the companies often printed or painted their names across the train cars, such as with early 20th century Lionel trains having their name printed on the train cars in orange lettering. Similarly, you can find their logos plastered onto the train car body or underneath the cars themselves.

Assess the Train's Condition

Condition always plays an important part in evaluation of any antique or collectible. Train sets that have all parts and pieces intact will almost always sell for more than sets that don't. If there're a lot of highly detailed graphics and they're in good condition, the train's worth will be appropriately increased. On the other hand, if there's a lot of wear and tear on the paint, scratches, dents, or rust, the train will be worth much less.

Model railways on display at the Royal Horticultural Hall in Westminster, London - Getty Editorial Use

Collect Information Using Online Retailers

Before buying or selling any antique toy trains, you should also familiarize yourself with the online market. Heading over to websites like eBay and entering the search term for your particular train should yield a number of items in a variety of conditions, and cross-referencing these listings with your own car's physical description might help you get an idea of what your car's market value is.

When it comes to this market, old toy trains run the gamut when it comes to prices. You can find individual cars selling for anywhere between $10-$100, depending on their age, condition, and brand. Interestingly, materials are another factor that affects antique toy train values; heartier toys like those made out of cast iron will usually sell for a lot more than newer toys made out of tin or aluminum. Take these toy trains, for example, that recently came to auction:

Lastly, Get a Second Opinion

If you think you might have something worth more than a couple of twenties, then you should definitely seek out a professional appraiser. Toy appraisers are a highly skilled and specialized group that can more accurately assess how valuable your train car(s) might be. Whether it's sets or individual cars, you should absolutely get an appraiser's opinion before listing your toy train for sale. You never know if you have a super rare and valuable train car in your collection until you get it professionally checked out.

All Tracks Lead Here

There're very few toys that're embedded with a universal sense of nostalgia, and toy trains are one of them. From their colorful details to model-accurate proportions, antique toy trains can be enjoyed by collectors and kids alike. Whether you decide to sell your caboose or leave it for your nieces and nephews to play with, these playthings can continue sparking joy and imagination for years to come.

How Do I Find the Value of an Antique Toy Train?