A train, a treasure, uncovered

#439 in a series of true experiences in real estate
September 2003, Hills Newspapers

Because we are always around people who are moving from one residence to another, we often see what they’ve got stored away. And it is fascinating. People keep everything!

Basements and garages everywhere are filled with junk and with treasures of all sorts, things owners thought they or their children would want someday, stuff they didn’t unpack after their last move, boxes their kids left with them when they moved away.

A few weeks ago we got involved in clearing a basement where a good friend had left belongings before moving to Washington state. He thought he might want to return to his house someday so rather than selling, he’d rented it out. He’s happy now after a dozen years in his new place and wants to sell the house here.

But first, he’d have to deal with the contents of the basement. We talked by phone quite a few times about the project trying to decide if he had to come take care of the job himself or if Anet and I could do it. The problem was that he couldn’t remember all that he’d left behind.

He did know that he’d left a Danish modern table and chairs set, classics from the fifties. He said he didn’t have space for them now but they might be valuable. Did we know how he could find out? How could he sell them?

And, he remembered, there was an old metal filing cabinet, 4 drawers full of family papers, letters and such, that had been his father’s. He’d never gone through the files, didn’t know what was in them, was feeling that he probably never would. But what should be done with them?

How would he get things back to his place anyway? Shipping papers was one thing, but furniture could be a problem.

He came. He got a ride with a friend who planned to be here for 3 days. Could our friend finish his task in that time? He asked me that. I said he should plan on it. But, in the end, it took 10 days. He flew back home taking very little with him.

Each box was opened and what was inside was, at least, glanced at. Clothes, lots of clothes were put aside for charity. China and trinkets that had been his mother’s were given away, some to friends, some to us, the rest donated. Papers — old letters, files and memorabilia — were dumped, boxes and boxes full.

There was a sizable cache of books left at the house by our friend’s son before he moved to Japan. The books looked pretty ordinary to us, probably easily replaced, but the son, we were assured, would be devastated if anything happened to his book collection. Never mind that they’d been left behind for 20 years. A small storage space was rented for, I think, $35 a month, and the books transported there.

A stretch of days spent in a basement going through old memories and forgotten things is tiring. We went to help, spent a long afternoon dusting, sorting, carrying. Still more was pulled out from under the house. It was clear by then that our friend found nothing worth saving, no matter what it was, although there were occasional finds.

There was a collapsible umbrella cleverly housed in a walking cane, a gift to our friend’s father when he was at Oxford. A tiny embroidered, French-knotted sampler made by his mother when she was a child. Also, father’s brass desk lamp from the days when he was a professor.

And there was a model train. Bought for our friend by his parents during the Depression, in 1931, he thought, for about $150. A Lionel train. Unfortunately, some years after purchase, the train had been loaned to cousins, and they had not treated it well.

It lay now in a large dirty box marked “Train.” Our friend did not even want to open the box. I volunteered to take it, said that I would do something with it, and he agreed. I was dying to see the train.

Last week I laid out all of the train pieces on my kitchen table and carefully dusted them off. It’s a beautiful train — engine and tender, derrick, gondola, box, stock and tank cars, two coach cars and caboose. The colors are wonderful – burgundy, tan, deep orange, rich greens.

There are crossing gates, a transformer, straight and curved track, and some original packing boxes. Everything is dirty, pieces are missing or broken, and there is some rust, especially on the track. Boxes are discolored, flaps missing. Still, it is a beautiful train.

We took everything to Tin Plate Junction in Oakland near Jack London Square. It’s an official Lionel store, surprisingly large, we thought, open 7 days a week, with new and old trains and accessories for sale. It was fun.

The people there loved the train and immediately set the locomotive on a track to see if it still ran. It does, but slowly, haltingly. It’s dirty, needs cleaning.

I had no idea what the train was worth in the shape it was in so was glad to pay for an appraisal. The charge is $40 per hour, in this case estimated to take a couple of hours.

What a wonderful surprise. The insurance value, the estimated price to replace the train with one in good condition, $2142. Market value, what one could expect to pay at swap meets and flea markets for a train in the shape it is in now, $1782. Wow!

I could, I suppose, have sold the train on eBay or to a private collector, but I asked the people at Tin Plate Junction what they would pay my friend for it. They offered $1,000. This sounded fair to me, and it did to my friend.

The train will be restored. They’ll tell us when it’s all done and we can go see it shiny and clean and running. That will be a good day.

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