Dealer pays $680,000 for Lionel train trove

PITTSBURGH – Two model-train collectors had prices jumping off the tracks at a recent U.S. Bankruptcy Court auction. At stake were 8,375 Lionel trains worth an estimated $1 million, stored in a Le*Nature’s warehouse.

Le*Nature’s chief executive Gregory Podlucky reportedly bought the trains – on the company’s dime – while the Latrobe, Pa., bottler of tea and flavored drinks foundered in debt. The company filed for bankruptcy last November.

The bidders were Georgia resident Scott Griggs, president of Trainz.com, and Joe Grzyboski Jr., an engineer and owner of Grzyboski’s Train Store in Scranton, Pa.

During the auction on Aug. 28 on the 54th floor of the U.S. Steel Tower in downtown Pittsburgh, the two train bidders squared off. Griggs announced a bid of $595,000 for the massive collection. Grzyboski countered immediately with $600,000.

Moments later, after each collector raised the bid nine times in $5,000 increments, Grzyboski’s winning bid of $680,000 took the lot.

Grzyboski said he was anxious to get a plan in place to move the precious cargo stored in 171 large plastic totes at the Le*Nature’s warehouse. “I’m going to have to use at least five trucks to get the trains back to my base in Scranton,’’ said Grzyboski.

Griggs, who had originally estimated the trains to be worth more than $500,000, said he was not disappointed in the sale. His reported limit was $675,000.

It is still unclear whether the collection’s sale will generate more money for Le*Nature’s creditors – who are owed more than $280 million. But it is clear that train lovers nationwide are making a virtual stampede via the Internet and the telephone to bid on the former Le*Nature trains.

“My phone has been ringing nonstop since the bankruptcy sale and my Scranton office is getting so many emails that we’ve had to work overtime to accommodate the traffic,” Grzyboski said.

One of the Lionel locomotives, which is gold-plated, is valued at $1,400.

Grzyboski said he was familiar with Podlucky’s trains because he sold many of them to the now-former CEO, who is the target of a federal investigation linked to the bankruptcy. “His collection includes a lot of hard-to-find engines,” said Grzyboski.

Collectors say model trains have never lost their nostalgic charm. “Why, I can’t remember a time when I did not have a train to play with or take to school as a show-and-tell project,” said Lou Ralston, a retired airline pilot from Delmont, Pa.

And model train expert James Burke said that nostalgia for collecting trains is carefully being nurtured by the 30,000-member Train Collectors Association of Strasburg, Pa.

“Our association sponsors a ‘kid’s club’ where we offer free membership for children and teenagers up to age 18,’’ said Burke, president of the association that also helps support a National Toy Train Museum begun in 1977. The museum displays more than 4,000 trains.

“Lionel trains had their heyday in the 1950s, when the biggest Christmas gift a boy could want was a Lionel train set,” said Burke, who has a basement full of vintage model trains. “Some of our newer train collectors are women,” he said.

Vivian Loft of Greensburg, Pa., said she has been collecting trains for more than 50 years after her grandfather left her more than two miles of track and more than 300 train sets. “Trains our my life and my hobby now, and they are so much fun to share with grandchildren.’’ said Loft, who boasts that she has all the modern computer-programmed train sounds to make her model systems sound like the real thing.

Grzyboski said his fondness for Lionel model trains began when he was a child and his parents, who were poor, saved up to buy him train sets. “Then in 1976, my son was born, and I purchased him a train. It was the Pennsylvania Little Joe, and my son’s name is Joe,” he said.

Today, Joe Grzyboski III runs the business. Grzyboski’s Train Store is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

“It’s been a good business and this new train acquisition will be fun to showcase to our loyal customers,” said the elder Grzyboski.

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