model train set on track

In Pursuit of Excellence – World Record Achievements!

e*Train Issue: May 2008   |   Posted in: ,

BY Dr. MARTIN A. FOLB, TCA #60-425


Throughout history, man has pursued a quest for the World’s Greatest Art Treasures.  It is, in essence, a search for the “HOLY GRAILS”; those items that define a level of achievement or perfection of craftsmanship far beyond the ordinary!  William Randolph Hearst, during the peak of his acquisitions of some extraordinary art was quoted as saying: “I have the simplest of tastes; I only want the Very Best”!  Seeking the “BEST OF THE BEST” is a lifelong pursuit and one that involves intense passion.  It is this passion that often results in determined individuals driving prices for a specific item to seemingly stratospheric levels.  And so, this fascinating story begins!

Gustav Klimt, portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, $135,000,000 (1907)
Vincent Van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, $82,500,000 (1890)

And now, a new entry into this rather rarified enclave –

Joshua Lionel Cowan, “The 20Th Century Limited, Special Edition”   $253,000 (1936)

So what circumstances created this rather extraordinary American Toy Train, World Record Sale?  It was a “PERFECT STORM” of events, condition and demand for something “Special”!

Our story begins in 1936, SEVEN DECADES AGO, and requires a look at how the difficult years of the Great Depression were affecting Lionel.  In 1929, Lionel introduced their series of magnificently detailed 21” long Passenger cars named after four states: California, Colorado, Illinois and New York.  There is no doubt that when these cars were first designed, the U.S. economy was in a prosperous boom that seemed to have no other way to go but UP!  The somber reality of “BLACK TUESDAY”, Oct. 29, 1929 provided an ominous scenario that threatened the very survival of the country!  As the depression deepened, with the period from 1932-33 considered to be the very worst part of the cycle, Lionel was forced to deal with the hard fact that there were precious, few customers for expensive toy trains!  This can be seen in the evolution of pricing of the several variations of the sets featuring “STATE CARS”.

1929: 411E (381E + 4 Green States) “THE TRANSCONTINENTAL LIMITED” -$110.00

1930: 411E (Now a Brown 408E + 4 Brown States)“TRANSCONTINENTAL LIMITED” -$110.00

409E (381E + 3 Green States), not named “OLYMPIAN” -$100.00

1931: 433E (400E + 3 Green States) “20th CENTURY LIMITED” -$85.00


409E (THE “OLYMPIAN”)-$85.00

This was the year for the first appearance of the “20th CENTURY LIMITED” which coincided with the introduction of the 400E, Lionel’s Flagship new locomotive, which would remain in the line until the last cataloging of Standard Gauge in 1939.  J. Lionel Cowan was a shrewd merchandiser and called the 400E and three Green State Car set, “THE 20th CENTURY LIMITED”, capitalizing on the popularity of one of the definitive railroad icons of the 1920’s and 30’s.  To have traveled on this train, with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, William Jennings Bryan, “Diamond Jim” Brady and Enrico Caruso; was to have “ARRIVED”!

1932: 433E (“20th CENTURY LIMITED”) -$85.00


409E (THE “OLYMPIAN”) -$65.00

1933: 433E (“20th CENTURY LIMITED”) Chugger incl. -$75.00

411E (408E BROWN + 4 Brown States) -$70.00

409E (THE “OLYMPIAN) -$50.00

By 1933, a worsening economy and adherence to NRA guidelines (National Recovery Act) had caused a substantial decrease in Lionel’s pricing!  By 1934, Lionel had the “Olympian” catalogued at $55.00.  There would not be another catalogued State set in any variation; a magnificent icon of Standard Gauge’s Golden Era was lost to time and economic reality as well as changing tastes.  Boys of the period were intrigued with the more realistic “O” gauge trains, epitomized by the introduction of the 700E in 1937.

The last appearance of State cars, priced at $15.00 each, was in 1935.  This was the year Lionel introduced the whistle.

Henry Bendixen was a wealthy retailer in Syracuse, New York whose Yara brand chewing tobacco was nationally known.  It seems that Henry also had a wholesale toy and confectionery business and a passion for extraordinary toys and trains.  In 1936, he placed an order with Lionel for a FOUR CAR STATE set even though no set had been catalogued since 1934!  It is not unreasonable to think that he, along with the rest of his generation, was intrigued with the lure of the 20th Century Limited.

Bendixen requested a Black 400E and Lionel prepared one using the same paint scheme that was being used on the 385E and 1835E at the time: SATIN BLACK FINISH with BLACK PAINTED Boiler Bands!

The above shows a comparison between a Mint 1932 Black 400E and the Bendixen “SATIN”.  Due to the fact that this loco was produced as late as it was, it features BOTH a whistle and a chugger!

The only box that Lionel had at hand large enough to contain this extraordinary set was one sized for a four Car Brown State Set- the 411E.

This box, interestingly enough, is dated 1932, and is EXACTLY the same size (and has the same date) as a known 411E set box.

As can be seen from the table presented here, this was the second to the last year that any 4 car State Set would be offered for sale.  Many people, lucky enough to even have something to eat during the grim days of the Depression, could not even conceive of nearly $100 for a child’s toy; it was a King’s Ransom!  More than likely, very few State sets were sold in 1932 and even fewer in 1933, thus resulting in an excess of these large cartons.  Lionel took this box, pasted a Set Label marked 433E, which of course was the designation for the standard three car 20th Century Limited, and sent it off.

The box has stamped above the label, “BROWN-IVORY” and below the label “GM”.  It is possible that the box was destined for a 20th Century Limited that would have contained 3 Brown cars, a Gun Metal 400E and track.  Sets of this type have been found in the hands of the original owners, although none were ever found with their original boxes!  Bendixen, being a dealer and buying this for himself, didn’t need the track so the box was perfectly sized for the 4th car!

There is also a shipping carton that was addressed to H. Bendixen in Syracuse, New York. The shipping carton itself is a bit of an enigma.

The label shows that it was ONE of TWO packages shipped to Bendixen.

The date code on this box verifies the 1936 dates on the interior cartons.

We don’t know what was in the second box.  This label indicates the following:
1- 414, 1-408E, 1 Pair 223 (Right & Left Electric Switches),
2- 922 (Illuminated Lamp Terraces), 6- #69 Aluminum Double Light Lamp Posts, 1- 439 Panel Board and a quantity of 1 unknown.  It is unclear exactly what Henry was trying to assemble, but considering what was found with the “20th Century Set” it is possible he was attempting to create a variation of Lionel’s magnificent 1931 Set 407E.

One of Bendixen’s “YARA TOBACCO – NONE BETTER” labels is attached to the top of the shipping carton (as was the case with the set box) and says: Lionel Oramental Lights, 3 Park Terrace, 2 Flashing Signals, Freight Bridge, Passinger Transformer, Lighting Transformer, 6 Blocks for Orm. Lights.  In pencil, above the label, is written: Lionel Passinger Accessories.  The writing is in the same hand and misspelling that appears on the set box!

The 433E set box fits inside this shipping carton perfectly, so we can assume it was most likely shipped in this carton and the other items in Box 2.  The only way that anyone can ever REALLY know, considering that all of the participants are currently at “room temperature”, is through a Séance!!

In reality, Lionel was in business to make money, and profits were essentially non-existent during the early part of the 1930’s.  That would help to explain why the company mixed boxes, tape, shipping cartons and even the rolling stock!  It was more a matter of practical business protocol and a desire to survive, then some artistic or other esoteric motive.  Unfortunately, it makes life a great deal more “challenging” for the collector, but perhaps also a lot more intriguing!

The real “ROSETTA STONE” involving this set is the individual box for the ILLINOIS car.  Illinois cars, even in their more common green window version, have always been scarce due to the fact they were included in a 4 car set for only one year, 1929.  Ivory window State cars are orders of magnitude rarer, and an Ivory window Illinois car and its box marked: 414 Special Green, IVORY, is the “HOLY GRAIL” of train collecting!

The set was found by Stan Slade, of Rochester, N.Y. on a tip from an auctioneer he knew.  In September of 1988, he arrived at an old Victorian home in Syracuse.  He was met by the executor of the Estate, and described walking into the house like stepping back in time to a 1933 Toy Store!  Boxes of mint toys and trains were sitting on antique furniture throughout the house.  In the dining room, were Lionel and American Flyer boxes around the room and on the table!  As he opened the boxes he found a mint boxed 4689 President Special set, a dark Gun Metal Grey 400E Freight set, two 408E’s, black 400E, 200 series freight cars, Hellgate Bridge, Station and Terrace, Weighing Scale and more.  Everything had its original packaging and boxes and was in New to Like New condition!  When he found the 433E set, his heart almost stopped!  Here was the ONLY, MATCHED, SET BOX AND INTERIOR BOX, SPECIAL ORDER 20th CENTURY LIMITED KNOWN TO EXIST!  It is interesting to note that even the rivet detail on the car ends MATCHES PERFECTLY, as do all the other aspects of this amazing set!

Later research on Stan’s part revealed the true, extraordinary nature of this find, an American Toy Train masterpiece, literally suspended in time.

The 20th Century Limited made its first public appearance at the Cal-Stewart Fall Meet in Pasadena, Calif. in November 2006.  The set truly made a “RED CARPET” debut, thanks to the loan of an original 20th CENTURY walkway rug provided by Mike Seibert

In the original version of the movie “FRANKENSTEIN” with Boris Karloff, produced in 1931 (the year interestingly enough that the 400E made its debut), Dr. Frankenstein exclaims when his creation is animated for the first time; “IT’S ALIVE!”  While doing the photography for this article, I could not resist the temptation to see what the set would look like with current coursing through its wiring.  It was an awesome experience seeing it awaken from a slumber that had lasted SEVEN DECADES!  Not only did all of the original bulbs LIGHT, but the locomotive RAN with as much vigor as it must have done on Christmas day 1936!  It was truly “ALIVE” once again!

The 20th Century Limited was ready to travel the “Water Level Route” just like its real world namesake – Note the 1930’s Era Prices on the menu.  From all appearances, this set was probably run once or twice, put away and did not see the light of day again for nearly 50 years!!

At the beginning of this story, we postulated on what extraordinary circumstances convolved to create this magnificent set.  Here, it can best be said that “LIFE IMITATED ART”!  In the current movie exploring the mystery and grandeur of the World of Magic, “THE PRESTIGE”, Michael Caine outlines it and we can certainly apply these observations to our discussion.  Every Magic trick consists of three parts or acts.  The first part is called THE PLEDGE.  The magician shows you something ordinary – say a 400E and some State Cars.  The second act is called THE TURN; the magician (in our case, J. Lionel Cowan) takes the ordinary and makes it do something extraordinary – a Special finish 400E and 4 beautiful State Cars with Ivory window trim.  But, every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the great finish that has the audience gasping in amazement; the part we call the PRESTIGE!  What better example of “THE PRESTIGE” then the Lionel Corporation’s incredible recreation of this American Icon: “THE 20th Century LIMITED”

How many times have train collectors fantasized about finding that ultimate set, with the boxes, untouched for decades; a Fairy Tale at best!

However, Fairy Tales DO COME TRUE and CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

Footnote: I wish to extend my thanks to the following individuals for their constructive input to this article:

Don Fiore, Michael Seibert, Jerry Wagner, Ed and Doug Prendeville, Bryan Fisk, Leon Jacobson, and Jerry Hamen.