model train set on track

My Junk Box Gold Mine Find, or “Congratulations, You’ve Won the Beaded Necklace!”

e*Train Issue: Aug 2014   |   Posted in:

By Al Michelini                                     Summer-Fall 2014

The phone rings and it is a lead on an attic collection, or maybe an estate, or in a junk box under a table at a flea market.  You know the stories.  Sitting around with a bunch of train collectors the stories begin to roll out.  There was the $10 Blue Comet or the Bing set that was plucked from the trash can, etc., etc., etc.

I joined the TCA about 10 years ago and have heard countless stories of the find of a life-time.  So began my search and I knew that the big one was in the next attic, basement, antique shop, or on the other end of the phone.  But “the find” proved more elusive.

My young son and I collect English and British Marx tinplate trains.  He started the Marx tinplate collecting in the family when he was about 8 years old.  Since then, he has gotten me involved in this madness.  So whenever we can spare the time, we answer calls and emails and follow leads for scarce and rare sets.  Our success has been substantial, but the pieces have been added through networking, researching and high bidding.  Then one day something happened.

I was looking through the upcoming online auction list of an obscure auction house in the east of England.  The type of place that does not attract much attention.  There was no real reason for me to even be looking at the auction since none of the lots contained any Marx trains or toys, but “Divine Providence” led me to the junk box section of the auction. There was just a vague description of Hornby trains, track, locomotives and coaches, but no photos.  Now, many auction houses in England really have not fully embraced the Internet or the appeal of digital photos.  One time I had asked for photos of a lot that was in an upcoming auction, and that particular auction house actually sent me pictures of the trains wrapped in bubble wrap.  Good job guys.

Anyway, back to the story.  So I asked for pictures and they posted one of the junk box lot.  There, sticking out of the box of rusty track, was an English Marx Green Link.  I could not believe my eyes.  For those who are unfamiliar with the Green Link, it is an English Marx Dudley factory pre-war production Green A4 style locomotive with an articulated tender, an articulated passenger car and observation car.  The passenger and observation cars are very similar in appearance to the popular American Marx M-10000 sets manufactured in the mid-1930s.  The differences are in the lithography, and in the fact that the English ones have metal undercarriages while the American ones are open.  The other difference is that there are possibly thousands of M-10000 sets, but there are maybe 12 or so Green Link sets.  They are extremely difficult to find and most collectors have never seen one in person.

I then asked for more pictures showing all the contents of the junk box lot and not only was there a complete set, but it was a five piece set consisting of the engine, tender, 2 coaches and the observation car.  I have not been able to document another 5 piece Green Link set in existence.  This was a fantastic find, even though the condition was only Good plus to Very Good minus and far lower than the C7+ of our 4 piece Green Link.  We anxiously awaited the auction date and plotted our strategy.

Since the description did not mention Marx we thought the bidding action would be somewhat limited.  You see the Green Link set does not contain the Marx trademark or name anywhere on the set.  Most experienced train collectors could not identify the set and neither could most auctioneers.  That was to our advantage, however the auction house posted the additional pictures on their website for all the world to see.  Now anyone who looked could see the set.  That just made waiting even more intolerable.

We took the time to calculate our maximum bid.  This is no easy task.  One needs to figure in the particular VAT (Value Added Tax) scheme the auction house has selected, the cost to have the set picked up by a shipping agent, boxed, and shipped to the US.  Most auction houses in England do not have in-house packing departments and instead direct successful bidders to the most expensive agents on the planet.  It can easily cost $150 to get a single train set from the UK to the US and shipping is far more expensive than it is here in the US.  You can however, negotiate the rates with the agents and get the cost down from a level that causes blood to squirt from your eyes, to a level that just makes you want to choke the nearest parcel delivery person.  These negotiations usually take a few days.  Finally with all the costs determined, including the exchange rate on the Pound, the credit card fee charged by the auction house and the foreign transaction fee charged by the credit card company, we arrived at our maximum bid amount.

Shortly before the auction I emailed the amount of our commission bid to the person handling my inquiries.  I then asked for written confirmation of her acceptance of my bid and received it promptly with assurances.

The auction began at 5:30am Eastern time and our prized lot was up for bidding during our breakfast time.  My son and I listened to the webcast of the auction live.  Although we could not see the room we could hear all the bids being placed and see the amounts on the screen.  Typically when we place a commission bid, the auctioneer will wait until there is only one remaining bidder on a lot and then announce that the house is bidding on commission for someone who is not present.  Normally we are able to hear that announcement and the subsequent price action until the hammer falls.  In this case the lot opened at 20 GBP and two bidders, one Internet and one in the room, ran the lot up to 42 GBP.  When the one Internet bidder apparently dropped out, we expected to hear the announcement that the house had taken up the bidding on our account.  Instead, we heard the hammer fall!  Oh no, something has gone wrong.

Immediately I put down my breakfast and grabbed the telephone.  The woman who was handling my inquiry answered and I proceeded to ask what happened to my bid.  She cheerfully responded “You were successful and won the beaded necklace for 200 GBP!”  Stunned, I sat there.  Then with all my manners shoved to the front of my mouth, I said, “I did not bid on a beaded necklace, I bid on the train that just sold to someone else”.  

She assured me that I had indeed bid on the beaded necklace and she had my email to prove it.  Then there was a bit of silence after I confirmed I had not bid on the necklace, followed by the faint sound of “Here it is, oh, now how did that happen?”  She called the manager over and together they said “How did that happen?”  Then she asked me the question – “Well, would you like the beaded necklace, it is really lovely?”

Again, I was stunned by the response.  No lie, she asked me this question 3 times and then asked it I wanted it removed from my bill!  At this point I was clearly struggling with the esoteric concepts of my sanity and civility.  Both seemed to be escaping me at light speed.  However, I again believe that this was a test from the Almighty.  He wanted me to be supremely challenged before being rewarded.

I maintained my composure and asked politely if they would not mind approaching the winning bidder in the room and mentioning that their error caused my bid not to be placed.  If they would not reopen the lot, could they broker a deal for me to buy the lot at a profit to the winner.  As it turns out, the winner was a good local customer (dealer) who did not mind selling the lot for almost 4 times his cost.

Not a bad profit for 5 minutes of ownership.  In any event, although not as cheap as I should have owned the set, we did secure the Green Link.  The remainder of the lot was re-commissioned to the auction house to appear in their next toy auction.  The Green Link was picked up by the agent and in no time delivered to our door in Florida.  We did our best to clean up the set and remove the decades of dirt and neglect.  The Green Link now shines brightly on our layout.

English Mark 5 piece Green Link

So a few weeks later I ventured off to York, PA for my annual week of toy train madness.  Yes, while a bunch of us were sitting around one night swapping war stories, I piped up and told them about the beaded necklace I recently won!

Anyone who has any questions, comments, information or photos to share about English or British Marx trains is encouraged to contact the author.

[email protected]