Learn to buy and sell antiques and collectibles

A Few Quick Buying Stories

As a result of my ads I get a hundreds of calls a month from people offering me their trains. For every hundred calls, I go out and look at about 20 sets. I buy 12-15 of those 20 sets.

For the past few months, I've been writing down the details of the calls, visits and purchases.

Looking these over, I can see errors I've been making that are costing me money or time. Some I'll try to stop doing, others are about my comfort level, and won't result in changes.


I got a call one day from a woman who was calling on behalf of her husband. I try to qualify people on the phone so I don't waste time. Based on the conversation he had a large volume of cheap items with maybe some items in the $40-80 range mixed in. I set appointments by region and set a day to meet later in the week.

The old man had started with his trains in the late 1960s, and had maybe 2000 pieces. Everything was used, and mostly modified. He's had a lot of fun playing with his trains, but has ruined the value.

For example: a loco I might sell for $30 if it was gently played with that he'd repainted and lettered with sharpie is now a parts item worth $5-10.

My impression was his wife had seen my ad and called me. He didn't want to sell his trains, in fact he still plays with them every day.

I make offers on almost every thing I see, but this time I didn't make an offer.

I told the man that unless he was desperate for money he should keep the trains. I further explained that the money I would give him wouldn't make any difference in his life and would be quickly spent. He should keep the trains while he's enjoying them.


I learned years ago to buy any old toy I can get my hands on when buying trains. When the people call, the last thing I say to them is I buy all types of old boys toys, so if they have other toys I'd love to look at them.

This has always worked well.

In early January, I talked with a man about his trains on a Tuesday and told him I'd be in his area on Friday. I closed the call the way I always do with my request for old boys toys.

When I met with the man on Friday, he had the trains out on a table in his garage, and a wonderful 1950s Tonka truck. He'd looked the truck up on eBay and wanted $150 for it. I bought it for less than that, but wasn't happy about him researching it.

So I decided that rather than telling callers I'd buy all kinds of old toys when I spoke to them initially, I'd wait until I was confirming the appointment the day I visit them.

Here's where the horror comes in. . .

The following week, I talked to a man on a Wednesday about his trains. I told him I'd call on Saturday morning and set up a time to come by in the afternoon.

When I called on Saturday morning to set up the appointment, I mentioned I buy old toys.

He'd found Tonka toys when he was getting the trains out, and taken them to Goodwill the day before. If I'd mentioned buying toys a few days earlier, he wouldn't have taken them to the thrift store.

Overall I still think mentioning the other items I buy on the day I set the appointment up is a better technique.

Even better, I have little paper slips that list all types of things I buy. I used to hand the slips to the homeowner when I entered his home. I've gotten out of the habit.

Twice on one day in February I was offered old wagons just by asking for them. I bought one - a cool early 1960s Radio Flyer, and left a 1960s rusty Sears branded wagon because I doubt I could resell it, and don't have room for another one in the yard.


Speaking of asking for other items, one of my friends asked me to grab old Radio Flyer sleds if I saw them. Here in the Arizona desert that happens about never, but I told him I'd keep an eye out.

Oddly enough, a week later I was standing in a man's garage trying to buy a set of trains for $130 while the owner wanted $150, During the haggling, I noticed an old sled up on a shelf in the garage. I ended up leaving with the trains and the sled for $155. Ted with a BuddyL locomotive. They are both from the same era.

The guy who wanted the sled helped me find one of my favorite trains years ago so I gave him the sled. It's the big train behind the teddy bear in the photo to the right.


I know that most of the time when I make an offer, the owner will respond by adding an amount to my offer to get to a new number. Because of this I make a lot of offers for $35, $40, $85 and $90, and amounts above them with hundreds in front like $240.

Usually when I make an offer of $240, the seller will counter with a request for $300, and we'll settle at $250 or so.

It's just a game. Sometimes it gets old, but that's what I have to put up with.

I went to look at trains one afternoon. When I rang the doorbell, the man answered the door and told me he'd meet me in the garage. He opened the garage door and then led me through the garage into the back yard. He had a bunch of boxes on a bench, and had set up a folding table to put the trains on.

I got the trains out of a box, looked at them, and then put them back in the box before opening the next box. This makes it easier to leave when I do the deal, and cuts down on the seller getting reattached to the trains.

Reattachment is a big issue. This man's newest train was from 1947. He hadn't had them out since his kids were young 40 years ago, but had kept them all this time.

When I was looking at the trains, he mentioned he had an old railroad lantern out in the shed, but he didn't want to sell it. It was beat up, but a quick sell at $100-125. (Most beat up lanterns are worth $10-15 so don't assume any old lantern is worth $100.)

Anyway, I run a tally in my head as I look at everything. Figuring I could pay the man $300 for the trains, I offered $240. He said, "No. I want a thousand."

I asked if he wanted help putting the trains away. When he said no, I thanked him for showing me the trains, and said I'd show myself out.

As I walked across the patio he asked for $800. He followed me into his garage where I complimented him on the way he had his tools laid out above his workbench, and he asked for $600.

In his driveway, I told him how I'd had a 1980s Buick like his and was very happy with it. He said he was selling the Buick - only 268,000 miles; $4300 - or I could have the Buick and the trains for $4800. (That's $500 for the trains if you're keeping track.) I declined politely.

When I reached the sidewalk, he offered me the trains for $400. I shook my head, and as I opened the door to my van, I said I'd pay $300 for the trains and the lantern. He said no, so I got into my van.

He walked up to the van and said he'd take the $400 for the trains and the lantern. I did the deal.

This story is an example of me making the owner sell me his trains. Or maybe it's me just getting tired of people making up numbers and playing games. In either case, by refusing to engage at the higher amounts, I forced the seller down into a range I could live in..

By countering with a price I would have been negotiating. By just saying no and leaving, the ball is in his court.


Here's another story about trains with a lantern involved that makes a different point. This man was about a mile away from the last guy, and also had the trains on his back patio. We didn't go through his garage, we used the gate at the side of his house.

Anyway, he had a 1938-39 set of Lionel trains in a plastic tub, and a railroad lantern. The trains were a better quality set, but in poor shape. An easy sell to someone looking to restore them for about $200.

I offered $140 for the lantern and the trains. The man asked me what I thought the lantern was worth. I told him the lantern was from a railroad I'd never heard of before so might be worth something, but was probably not worth more than $60, and more realistically probably only worth about $40.

He said he'd keep the lantern and sell me the trains for $80. That's $140 minus 60 for the lantern. I did the deal. (I checked the lantern when I got home and they sell on eBay for $35-50 with the higher priced ones being a bit nicer than his was so I was better off leaving the lantern.)

Did you spot the interesting thing the seller did here?

Remember, I'm upfront with the sellers that I'm paying a fraction percentage of the amount I expect to get for the trains. He knows this, but he's subtracting the full value of the lantern from my offer.

This odd math happens a few times a year. Last year I actually bought a set of trains and had the woman throw in a 1940s parking meter for $150, after I'd offered her $200 for the trains alone.

The parking meter is neat, but it's not worth anything. It was just an object in her house I could talk about rather than respond with a number after she'd countered my $200 offer with a request for $300.

Confused? Me too. Although I will admit I do like having the parking meter.


Here's another odd negotiating story. I had a call one day from a man with a bunch of trains. From talking on the phone with him, I doubted it was worth my time to even look at them. The fact that he was 40 miles away - one way - didn't help with my lack of confidence.

I told him I'd call him when I was in his area. Over the next 6 weeks he called a few times to ask if I'd be in his area. Nope.

I move my ads around so I'm targeting neighborhoods, and I had an advertisement run in that area. I ended up with about 6 people to visit with so I called him and went to see him.

He had the trains set up on folding tables in the garage.

While I look at items, I look for damage. Most of what this guy had was damaged. Cracked plastic, scratched, paint smeared on it, and just heavily used.

I asked him what he wanted. He said $1100.

I said no, and asked him for advice on how to get to my next stop as I walked out of his garage. I never park in people's driveways. I always park on the street because that's the way I was taught. It also gives me a nice walk for people to follow me on.

This guy followed me out of his garage, and asked how much I'd pay for the trains. I said as bad as his stuff was, I wouldn't give him $200. He then sold me the trains for $180.


I got a call from a guy one day who had his father's trains and wanted to sell them. He was about a mile away so I met him a half hour later.

His dad bought neat kits and stuff between 1950 and 1965. Everything was boxed up in the late '60s and had been in storage since.

Sadly some of the items had just fallen apart over the years due to poor storage, or just poor quality castings. Other items that were kits had been painted in the wrong colors which lowers the value.

While I was looking, he'd told me he'd taken some of the stuff to a local train store. The store told him the same things I was saying as I looked at the stuff.

Anyway, I looked the stuff over, and made him an offer. $1800.

He said since he had everything laid out he would put some pictures on Craigslist and see if there was any interest.

I picked up two items off the nearest table and said, "one of these is worth $300, the other is worth $30. Which one is the expensive one?"

He didn't know. I told him that since he couldn't tell the difference between the good one and the cheap one, he shouldn't sell anything by itself.

I've had this happen before. The first time it happened, I offered a woman $200 for a $250 car and about $50 worth of cheap items. She declined and then 2 weeks later called to tell me she'd take my offer.

When I got there, she only had $50 worth of trains. She'd sold the good car to a man for $20. He only wanted the one car since he already had the other stuff.

Oddly this woman got upset with me when I pointed out her error. She said it was my fault she'd sold the car because I hadn't told her about it, and told me I had to buy the trains for $200.

This was the first and ONLY time I ever used profanity when in a house looking at trains.

Anyway, back to the more recent story. After making sure the guy wouldn't sell a few pieces out of the hoard, and telling him to call me before he took any offers, I left.

Two weeks later he called and I went over and bought the trains.

The point I want to make with this story is he'd had the trains on Craigslist for 2 weeks. In that time he had about a half-dozen calls, and only two people came to look at them.

One guy offered $2000 but didn't have the money so he said he'd take half, then come back for the rest when he sold them. That didn't fly, so he said he'd try to borrow money. He failed to borrow money.

The second guy offered $2500, but said he'd have to pay with a postdated check the seller could cash in 4 months! That didn't fly either.

The seller then called me and asked if I was still interested. He told me about the two offers he'd had, and asked if I'd match the higher one. I told him I'd come over with the cash and we'd talk about it.

He'd found some more stuff, and I helped him pick out a cheap but nice looking train he could keep to remember his father, then paid him $2000.

A while back I wrote in my article about the fixed price trap on eBay about how people had lots of inventory but no cash to do deals. One of the men who couldn't do this deal fits into that trap.


I bought trains one day that were in a 1970s era fake black leather trunk. The trunk is particle board wrapped with vinyl and some tin on the corners. They're neat if you want to store things in them, but they have no value.

This guy wanted me to pay him extra for the trunk, so I used a tub I carry in the van to haul the trains home and left the trunk.

I moved storage sheds in October, and found a bunch of old trunks and suitcases that I'd gotten trains in over the years. I kept two of the older real leather ones with the decals from places visited on them because they look cool and had stuff in them. I tried giving the rest to the local VW place I buy parts at because the old car guys like to put roof racks on their cars with period luggage. They didn't want them, so I threw them out.

Speaking of trunks, it seems like about a third of the trains I buy are in plastic tubs rather than cardboard boxes. Some are just thrown or poured into tubs, but most are nicely wrapped and protected.

If these people all bought the same kinds of tubs I'd be really organized. Instead I have different shapes and sizes that don't stack very well. This is more of a hassle, so now I just give away any tub I get other than the two types I use.

In fact, I've been hoping someone would sell me some trains in green tubs because I use them for heavy stuff going to the shows and the ones I have always fill up fast.

On this subject, some trains I buy come in old military ammo boxes. If they aren't dented or rusty, these can be worth a few bucks - usually less than $25, and are easy to sell on Craigslist. I don't sell the ones I get. I give them to a gun dealer who refers trains to me a few times a year.


I talked to a man on the phone the other day. He saw one of my ads and called to offer me his trains. I told him I'd pay a percentage of what I thought each loco is worth, and 50 cents each for the cars and take all of them.

He told me he's been selling his cars on eBay for about $9 each plus shipping. So I offered to sell him a hundred assorted cars brand new in the box for $350.

He was quiet for a minute, then said it would take him 4 years to sell a hundred cars on eBay.

It turns out he lists 50 cars at a time, and sells 2 or 3. Then he relists all the cars that don't sell the following month along with 2 or 3 newly written auctions when he gets more free listings.

I list and sell fifty or more of these cars every month on eBay. Most months I get a few dozen more of these cars with my purchases so really I'm just clearing out space for the newly found ones. Some get bidding wars and go for prices between $15 and $30. Most sell in the $3-6 range.

By selling them I get a few hundred in sales for 8 hours work, and also get a lot of great feedback.

If you run the numbers, you'd think that I could pay more than 50 cents each. The reason I don't is I have a near endless supply of them being offered to me. Also any car that is broken or shows signs of use is sold in junk lots for 20-60 cents a car. When I buy a hundred or more of these cars I don't take the time to examine each one.

I didn't even go see this man.


I was at a show the other day. One seller covered a table with tools. I bought a ring remover for a dollar so I can have one in my tool box and one on the bench.

The seller also had a lot of nice Craftsman wrenches, but they weren't priced low enough to resell for a profit, and I need metric not English sizes, so I left them. One of my friends bought all the wrenches. He doesn't need them either, but they were cheap. They'll end up in a box in his garage, and he'll probably never use them.

This is something I'm trying to avoid. Buying things because they're cheap and I have money in my pocket.


I was an appraiser at a recent event for the local PBS station. It will be similar to the Antiques Roadshow, but called Arizona Collectibles. They filmed it and will show the series in the fall. I could write a whole article about this event, but only want to share one story right now.

A woman came in with a wrought iron tricycle. When I asked her what she knew about it she said it was almost 200 years old.


I looked at it and it had manufactured parts, so I didn't think it was that old. I asked her how she came up with the age.

She said it was her grandmother's and that she had lived to be 100 years old. Her mother, who I met, was 93 years old which is almost 200 years.

Five minutes of trying to explain that the two ages weren't cumulative got me nowhere.

She finally got my point when I asked her if her grandmother had died during childbirth.


I mentioned earlier that I get hundreds of train calls a month. This is because I run ads, and because I've been active for decades and get referrals.

With my report on Buying Antiques and Collectibles For Your Collection or For Resale you'll get some good deals, and create your won stories like mine.


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