Making tracks to snap up a classic Hobby: Auction of toy electric trains has collectors all fired up.

October 11, 1997|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A set of circa-1915 Baltimore-made toy electric trains, wrapped in brittle newspapers and stored away for the past 40 years, could be bid up to the cost of a new Ford Explorer when sold today at a local auction house.

The pair of locomotives and an electric streetcar, with nine freight and passenger cars in their original pasteboard boxes, were produced before World War I by an electric motor company named Voltamp and modeled after B&O Railroad trains and city trolleys. The dozen pieces could sell for more than $30,000 at a Greenberg auction at the Sykesville-Freedom Fire Company in Sykesville.

The sale has sparked interest in the competitive field of train collecting, a hobby with many followers along the East Coast, where toy train manufacturers such as Ives, Lionel and American Flyer had their plants.

"Everybody wants a Voltamp train," said Dana Hawkes, director of collectibles for Sotheby's auctions in New York, who added, "They are very hard to come by." Her firm sold a single Voltamp interurban-style streetcar for $9,200 two years ago.

"Voltamp is definitely the Cadillac of tin-plate trains," said Gettysburg, Pa., collector Frank Loveland. "Their vivid paint colors and craftsmanship are excellent."

"When you look at the trains, you see how very well made they were. The motors are wonderful, the trucks are cast iron, the wheels are brass. They are totally superior in detail. If a cheaper mass producer like Lionel hadn't come along, Voltamp would have gone nationwide," said Ken Post, a Closter, N.J., dealer-collector.

Some 29,000 collectors belong to the Toy Train Association, a group based in Strasburg, Pa., and whose members-only, semi-annual meet is held in York, Pa., next week. Several years ago its museum purchased about 100 Voltamp-made tin-plate (pre-World War II, metal-sided trains) items from a Baltimore family.

The trains to be auctioned this week sat for many years in the home of Nancy Curlett Martin, a Lutherville resident who received them as a gift in the 1950s from a bachelor friend of her father's.

"I played with them as a child. My favorite was the streetcar. It reminded me of the ones on York Road that I took to my pediatrician in Towson," she said.

"They were sitting on a shelf and my daughter wasn't interested in them. ... Evidently, they are more rare than what I thought."

The Voltamp trains that collectors prize today began as an experiment in toy-making. Manes E. Fuld (1862-1956), who owned an electrical supply and dry cell battery business, wanted a miniature train for a son named Edwin.

The elder Fuld, who held a University of Maryland degree in pharmacology, was a man of varied interests who started out as a Shakespearean actor, then opened a drug store in Bolton Hill at Park Avenue and McMechen Street. He lived in the Marlborough Apartments, also the home of the art-collecting Cone sisters.

Bernard Fishman, director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, said his organization has kept a file on Voltamp because Manes Fuld was a notable member of Baltimore's Jewish community. Citing a copy of a letter in the museum's collection, Fishman said Fuld made his first set of metal trains in 1897.

"Many who had seen the set ... urged me to consider their production," Fuld wrote in that letter in the museum's files at Lloyd and Watson streets in East Baltimore. The museum has several Voltamp items in its collection, but no electric trains.

About 1903, Fuld's workers started full-scale production of electric toy trains. The next year, 1904, Fuld wrote that all his trains had sold out. But because they were expensive and people were wary of electrical power, Voltamp trains never sold nationally as well as they did in Baltimore.

The Voltamp trains were handmade, heavy and costly. A full set with a B&O freight engine and cars sold for $155 in 1923, the cost of a used car back then. That year, Fuld got out of the toy train business, selling his line "lock, stock and barrel" to a New York firm named Boucher. Fuld retained his North Paca Street electrical business, which sold batteries, tools, doorbells, light bulbs and electrically powered medical devices. But its trains have given Voltamp its lasting name.

"The trains weren't really toys that children could run. They had to be set up by the parents. The electricity was dangerous. There weren't the safety features that came in later," said Post.

"Voltamp trains were always produced in fairly small numbers. I've heard you could walk in and ask for a yellow caboose at the counter. They said, 'Wait a minute. We'll paint one for you,'" said Bill Routson, a Baltimore County fire department captain who has collected Voltamp for the last 30 years.

"Voltamp collectors have always networked among themselves and kept their little secret quiet. Auctions get us excited," Post said.

Pub Date: 10/11/97

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