Collector finds motivation in Japanese tin toys

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"One of the best parts of the antique hobby is being able to share with a fellow collector."

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Vintage boxed toys take up as much room as Linn's clothes -- if not more.
Photo courtesy Michael Linn

In 25 years of collecting there is not much that I have not accumulated en masse, gotten bored with and then sold at a profit or loss. I wake up every Saturday at 5 a.m. to canvass neighborhood garage sales in search of treasure. There is not a thrift store or antique mall in a 50-mile radius of my home that I have not visited a dozen times. I have traveled as far as the East and West Coasts to find toys. Finally, after all the years of collecting, I had a lot of miscellany, but nothing worthy of a coffee table book.

The only consistent element of my collecting habit was the enjoyment of vintage toys and my childhood love of trains, since my grandfather had worked for Sothern Pacific. I did happen upon a large collection of toys early one Saturday from a local attic that spanned three generations (1920-1960s). There were a lot of tin cars, buses, animals, trains and bulldozers that were friction and battery-operated. Most of the toys were in great shape and this large toy lot (600 total pieces) became the foundation of my collection.

Acquiring toys became tougher after that large score, since I was slowly getting out of my league in quality and price range and needed to make decisions about my future collecting path.

I really spent some time thinking about what I liked and would find rewarding to collect. I was ready to commit to one thing rather than any and all old toys that I could find. I decided to set my standards high, only buying the best, and work on a life-long collection.

I had come to really appreciate Japanese tin toys, including friction, battery-operated and wind-ups. I had a few locomotives in my collection already and truly enjoyed the colors, shapes and styles. Japanese tin friction trains are reasonably priced compared to robots, cars and space toys by the same manufacturers. I started buying tin trains and was spending between $25 and $50 for a boxed train from the 1950s or 1960s. As my collection grew in size, I developed interests in specific Japanese companies and engine styles. I was finding variations in paint schemes and box graphics.

Over the last 10 years, my handful of tin engines has turned into 300 different trains ranging from 1 inch to 3 feet in length. I also was accumulating a large number of duplicates from upgrades, and my inability to pass on a toy that was attractive and attractively priced. I have been able to reduce many of my boxes of miscellaneous old toys into tin trains and a little extra household money.

I have put myself well on the way to a world-class collection of Japanese tin friction, battery-operated and wind-up locomotives that date from the 1920s through the 1960s. There is a possibility that a toy collector in Japan (Mr. Teruhisa Kitahara) has more tin engines in his collection, but maybe not!

Could I be number one? I have tin trains in my office, in my closet, in drawers and in my garage. Am I the king of tin trains? The go-to expert if you had a question about a train toy from Japan? Will my wife continue to allow me to hide more toys in our house? It was time to make the next step and truly emerge as a Mega Collector.

One of the best parts of the antique hobby is being able to share with a fellow collector or someone that shows the slightest bit of interest in listening or looking. I don’t believe there is a strong market right now for an expensive illustrated hardback book on the universe of Japanese tin trains. I wanted to find a way to justify the time and money and true joy that I had put into my growing collection of vintage tin toys.

These toy collecting resources – and more – are available at shop.collect.com.
Toys & Prices 2011
O’Brien’s Collecting Toy Cars & Trucks
O’Brien’s Collecting Toys

I went online to see which URLs were available that had some reference to my toys. I was able to buy “www.tintrainstation.com” for $9. Now all I needed was the website itself.

I use the computer daily at work and feel confident with my office skills, but Web design would be new. I investigated a number of sites that offered a template design for the novice, but didn’t see anything that would meet my goals. I wanted a website that would be heavy on photos and needed organization. I didn’t want to put together a site that lacked professionalism and thus distracted from the content.

So I just started by taking a photograph of each train with its box, which took a lot of time. I didn’t realize just how many trains I had until I had taken all the pictures and saw them all in one place. I spoke to a friend at work who had spent years in the graphic design business. He helped me put together an organized look and common thread throughout all of the pages of the site. We spent some time talking about goals for the site and the best method to organize categories and yet keep things simple.

After he finished the sections and linked the photographs he handed me a CD of my website. I now had a registered Web domain and a CD but no storage or hosting abilities. Since it was now time to renew my domain name I would pay for hosting through the same company. I placed the CD in the computer drive and clicked the button to transfer files. My collection was officially on the Internet.

I have received some great emails about my collection and a request to come and see all of my trains in person. I have had offers on pieces in my “For Sale Section,” and I’ve created an additional page to list links to other sites to try increasing my exposure on the Web.

I have posted the website on many discussion boards. I am working on a feature page that will focus on the incredible style of 1950s train boxes and toys. I have been in a constant email exchange with the local railroad park to see if I could set up a display in their museum during the next holiday season.

I have come a long way from a closet full of old toys that I look at each morning as I get dressed for work.

I am a Mega Collector at www.tintrainstation.com.

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More Images:

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Collector Michael Linn re-focused his collecting efforts from the broad category of neat old toys to Japanese tin locomotives from the 1920s through the 1960s.

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