Railroads have always held a special place in the American consciousness. The idea of traveling across the country by train is a symbol of freedom, the Wild West and manifest destiny. As such, it’s no wonder that old railroad memorabilia is so popular to collect. It’s not uncommon to see collectors in search of old train lanterns, watches and other pieces that remind them of the golden age of rail travel.
Like any other antique or collectible, old railroad memorabilia is valued based on supply and demand. Some items were simply produced in smaller numbers, and the history of a particular railroad company often plays a role in how valuable memorabilia from that line is. Then there are other factors such as the style of an item, whether it was used by the public or employees and how unique the markings were.
For example, a rare railroad dining car plate may be worth thousands of dollars. But a common plate from a well-known railroad can only bring about $20.
Other items, such as clocks and china that were used in railroad dining cars can be quite valuable, but they are also easy to find in many antique stores. If you have an old railroad-related item that you think might be worth a lot of money, it’s a good idea to consult some of the many available railwayana price guides to get an accurate idea of its value.
There are a few general antiques guides that include values for railwayana, but those are limited in their usefulness. Most collectors have horror stories of seeing items at antique shows that are laughably priced based on over-generalizations from those guides. For example, a dealer will put a price on a Dietz Vesta lantern that’s marked for the New York Central, even though that specific marking is extremely rare.
One of the best ways to determine how much your item might be worth is to attend a railroad show or two. There, you’ll have the opportunity to bring in your item for a reaction from dealers who are familiar with the market and can provide an informed opinion.
If you’re unable to find a show near you, you can try looking at railroadana sites such as eBay and Etsy. These sites offer a great place to buy and sell, but be careful that you are dealing with reputable sellers. Lastly, don’t forget to check out your local flea markets and antique shops for items that could be valuable.
If you’re an advanced collector, it’s a good idea to take your item to a few railwayana shows and let other people in the industry know that you have something valuable. Some of them will make a point to check out your item, and you’ll likely be able to find a buyer in short order. If you’re lucky, your item might even be worth a few thousand dollars!