Quite a few antique toys are remembered and revered today, but Lionel trains top the list. Model train sets have an infamous reputation in pop culture, calling up images of moms in pearls and white picket fences. Today, these working model toy trains are worth a ton of money. If you're lucky, you'll find one of these most valuable Lionel trains in an old box in your grandparents' attic.
Lionel Toy Trains and Their Meteoric Rise
While Lionel was far from the only company to manufacture toy trains, they were one of the best in the business. Joshua Lionel Cowen developed the train brand in the early aughts and by the 1910s, he'd created the popular and inexpensive O-gauge track that Lionel trains still use today.
Although the company suffered during the Depression, they came back with a bang in the post-war period, marketing unique new features. They capitalized on the booming post-war consumer-driven economy, resulting in a brand that has stood the test of time.
The Most Valuable Lionel Trains on the Market
Lionel train collectors tend to categorize the toy trains using a variety of distinctions, the first of which is pre-war and post-war trains. In terms of value, pre-war trains are worth more than post-war because they're much harder to find in good condition. However, there were notable trains made during the post-war period that still hold up on today's market.
1934 Lionel Standard Gauge Diesel Train Set
To date, the most valuable Lionel train set ever sold was the 1934 standard gauge diesel set. It was in mint condition with the original box and sold to an unknown collector for $250,000. Unfortunately, any internet record of the auction sale has been eaten by the algorithm, but collectors still reminisce about this rare find.
Lionel Prewar 700E Husdon Brass Prototype
The second most valuable Lionel train set ever sold is the all-brass prewar 700E Hudson prototype piece. In 2004, it sold on Liveauctioneers for $70,000. Circa 1937, this prototype was made in preparation for the Hudson train set that would later come out. As always, prototypes are incredibly valuable, and this one holds up.
Lionel Standard Gauge #387W Train Set
Another major thing to look at when you're assessing old Lionel train sets is condition. The less amount of wear and play that's visible on the sets, the more money they'll end up selling for. Take this extremely fine prewar standard gauge #378W set that sold for $12,600 at a Morphy Auction. If it was a car, it'd have 15 miles on it and all the stock parts.
1932 Lionel #177 Scenic Railway Store Display
Interestingly, not every valuable Lionel train set is one people could buy. Instead, the 1932 Lionel #177 scenic railway set was used as a store display and is one of the finest train decorative train sets to survive from the period. Because of how rare it is and its pristine condition, the set sold in 2018 for $12,000.
Prewar Lionel Mickey Mouse Circus #1536 Train Set
Besides the two most valuable (documented) Lionel train sales, you start to look at prices peaking in the ~$10,000 range. For example, the Mickey Mouse circus train set #1536 from 1935 is a precious prewar artifact from the Lionel catalog. This specific set was still in the original box and sold on Heritage Auctions for $9,858.75.
Not only is the train set valuable for being boxed and prewar, but it's also got incredible appeal because of the subject matter. Anything related to the Mouse will find a following willing to pay for it.
1957 Lionel 'Girl Set' Train Set
If you look back at vintage advertising, then you probably notice how they tend to have little boys playing with train sets, with nary a girl in sight. Marketed as a boys toy, Lionel rectified that image with a new train set labeled the "Girl Set." Like so many toys before it, the manufacturers couldn't possibly approach toy marketing in an unisex fashion, and so they had to capitalize on young girls who liked trains by having their own girly train sets.
These 'girls sets' feature less realistic car models painted in stereotypically feminine colors like pink, light blue, and lavender. Yet, these sets are valuable today because they're hard to come by and a unique piece of both Lionel train and girlhood history. In 2016, one set sold for $2,800 through Liveauctioneers.
Prewar Apple Green Lionel Standard Gauge Train Set
Another prewar set to keep your eyes open for is the standard gauge 408E locomotive. This set came in multiple colors, such as Mojave, orange, and apple green. Individually, the different train cars from these sets can sell for around $200, and when combined, they'll sell for anywhere between $1,500-$2,000. For example, one apple green set sold for $1,800 through Liveauctioneers.
Valuable Characteristics to Look For
At first glance, an old toy train set is an old toy train set. But there are minute variations that can mean the difference between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars of profit. When inspecting your old train sets, check for these specific characteristics.
- Look for locomotives first. These are the choo-choo part of the trains, and can come with cool features like smoking stacks and light-up bulbs.
- Check the identification number to see if it's a prewar set. Prewar sets are worth way more than postwar ones, and you can use one of the many online Lionel identification guides to check when your set was made.
- See if they come in the original boxes. Even mid-priced sets that still have the original boxes intact will jump up in sales price.
- Look for trains in immaculate condition. You want old toy trains that look like they've never been used (which, considering they're toys, we can see the irony).
Lionel Trains Are Little Engines That Could
Valuable Lionel train sets are easier to come by than many other prewar toys, and depending on the specific pieces, they can be worth thousands of dollars to the right collectors. Or, they can be super high in sentimental value if they were something your grandparents or great aunts and uncles lovingly kept all these years.