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Serious collectors, whatever their areas of interest, know that the best places to find scarce items are smaller venues: out-of-the-way shops and flea markets and specialty auctions. Go the extra mile, dig a little deeper, peruse entire auction catalogs, whether printed or online, and experiment with your key-word searches: You’re bound to be rewarded with buried treasure where your rivals didn’t think to look.
It’s another reason why I urge readers to check out the current auction at Denver-based Railroad Memories (www.RailroadMemories.com), which closes Fri., Oct. 8, at 5 p.m. Mountain Time (7 p.m. EST, 4 p.m. PST). Even if the Age of Steam doesn’t get your pistons pumping, and your idea of rail travel is riding the shuttle between terminals at Sea-Tac Airport, you may well spot a unique piece to give as a holiday gift – an accent for your friend’s office, perhaps, or your significant other’s man cave or powder room – or to add color to your own living or work space. I guarantee you, smart professional decorators watch auctions like this.
There are about 500 lots in this auction, plenty of which have low minimum bids; but you have to register to participate, so don’t dicker. After a quick perusal, I noted some of the collecting categories represented:
Of course, there’s good old-fashioned railroad memorabilia for train enthusiasts as well, all described by an expert. Railroad Memories owner and appraiser Susan Knous and her late husband Bill authored “Railroadiana: The Official Price Guide for the Year 2000 and Beyond,” now out of print. “I am proud to say we sold 7,000 copies,” Susan told me. “It is still available from Amazon and many of the other used-book dealers, often selling for a ridiculous premium. However, if you watch eBay or even some of the dealers’ sites, you can still find it fairly affordable.”
Susan said she is well into production of a new book, “Railroadiana II: The Official Price Guide for the Year 2011 and Beyond,” to be completed this year. “I am feeling pretty excited to be this far along,” she noted. “My first book has 368 pages and over 900 photographs. The new book, I am proud to say, is completely illustrated, with photographs for every piece shown; there will be several thousand. I am halfway through layout and have surpassed 2,200 photographs now.”
Eager to learn more about railroad collecting, I asked Susan some basic questions about it …
AmeriCollector: Why do people collect railroad memorabilia? What is the appeal?
Susan: I have had the pleasure over the last 25 years of dealing with so many different people in this hobby. For some, they grew up with the railroads, and the love of the memorabilia has just been a way to keep those wonderful memories alive. Many are retired former employees, and then others are just fascinated with the history.
Whatever the reason, there seems to be a magic that lures people to the railroads. Watch a child’s eyes light up when he or she sees a model train – too young to have been able to experience it firsthand and yet still fascinated by the engine pulling the cars around the track. Is this the beginning of a lifelong hobby? I would like to think so. Even adults become enthralled by the display. And yet, this hobby does seem to entice more men than woman. There are many wives who take part, but oftentimes it seems the trains are big boys’ toys.
And then there are so many different facets of this hobby. Some just model; others take photographs chasing trains across the country to get just the right shot; and then others collect.
AC: What do collectors tend to focus on?
Susan: The railroads marked everything with their initials or logos, which has kept the provenance alive. If you grew up in New York and you remember the 20th Century Limited, you would most likely collect the china, lanterns, locks, keys and so much more with the logos and initials; it becomes a way to keep the history of a bygone era alive. If your passion is the history of the early narrow-gauge railroads that struggled to build lines in areas so remote that even if they were successful they often lasted only a few short years, then to obtain something from those elusive carriers is the ultimate quest. Such items can command premium prices.
I have customers as far away as England who collect Colorado Midland memorabilia. There are enthusiasts who limit their choices to simply collecting lanterns or locks or keys. And then there are those who look for everything and anything in regard to the railroads. From the simplest timetable to the rarest lantern, each piece has a story that we only wish we could replay.
AC: Is collecting railroadiana an expensive hobby? Are there interesting items that are relatively inexpensive?
Susan: It is not uncommon for some extremely rare pieces to command several thousand dollars. Certain lanterns bring in excess of $25,000 or $30,000. Some keys sell for $2,500; locomotive builders’ plates and front-end number plates in excess of $10,000; and some china pieces for $4,000. And then there are the paper items, surprisingly bringing $1,000-plus for a paper pass from an early narrow-gauge railroad. All of this seems to suggest that railroad collectibles are real treasures.
Still, there are definitely some affordable items to be had, and no, you don’t have to spend thousands to enjoy this hobby. My catalog is a great example of that, with minimum bids as low as $5 to as much as $5,000.
I encourage people to join the hobbyist organizations. The Railroadiana Collectors Association, Incorporated (RCAI, at www.railroadcollectors.org) is a great start. The Web site is very well done and is a great resource for anyone interested in getting started in the hobby.
AC: Is it my imagination or are there very few dealers – and fewer auctions – specializing in railroad items?
Susan: You are right that there are only a few companies that specialize in railroad collectibles. Many would suggest that there are just not enough railroad artifacts that have survived to be able to spread the wealth. My thought is if you are in the collector’s circles, the antiques are still available.
It is the specialization and the lack of overall knowledge of railroad collectibles that probably limit the amount of companies involved. Railroad Memories has built a strong reputation for honesty, integrity and unparalleled customer service, coupled with extensive knowledge derived from handling amazingly rare items over the years.
AC: How did you and your husband get involved in railroad memorabilia?
Susan: This starts as a hobby for many but turned into a full-time business for my late husband and me. He was the consummate entrepreneur. He always loved trains growing up, and my grandfather was an executive with the Denver & Rio Grande, so I had the love of trains in my family.
We took a road trip one day up to Georgetown, Colo., to ride the Loop Railroad and, walking around town, saw a small shop for rent. We discussed plans all the way home, made a few calls and within a week had rented the storefront. Our thought was that a shop devoted to railroad artifacts would be fun in a small mountain town.
We did our first auction in 1987 after meeting a gentleman with a large collection he needed to sell. Needless to say, this was the beginning of what would become a successful full-time business. It is due to our experience in handling literally thousands of different pieces of railroad antiques over 25 years that we have been able to amass not only a large photographic library but also the knowledge to write the price guides.
We were partners in everything we did and had 33 wonderful years together and three beautiful children. Continuing to build the business we began together is my way of keeping his memory alive.
Images provided courtesy of Railroad Memories (www.railroadmemories.com)