Editorial Comments - RCJ Xtra! (#143)
"Plus Ça Change ..." Looking back over the past 12 months, it has been difficult to determine the direction in which Railwayana Collecting is headed. To be sure, we're all "at sea" - and on a pretty choppy one at times. Every so often, we crest the waves - and the view seems clear; next minute we're back in a trough - and it's easy to visualize despond all around. Have we lost our rudder? Do we know where we want to go - but lack the means of setting course - or is it simply that no-one is at the helm these days? We used to have a fine sea-going vessel - a flagship after which all would willingly follow. But she is now becalmed, her respected Master spirited away by the sirens' refrain that drew him "like Webster's Dictionary, Morocco bound".
Not only have we lost direction, we have also lost way. Little meaningful progress has been made over the past year, although the opportunities were plain to see. Elsewhere, railway enthusiasm has seen great strides being taken - and we must be grateful for those diversions to cheer us on. But we must concentrate on the Railwayana Auction scene here and 2005 has seen some major changes all round.
We applaud the general improvement in the standard of catalogues produced - and particularly the introduction of free distribution of theirs by Great Central Railwayana (who have taken over the Kidlington events). It is the auctioneers' responsibility to ensure the widest possible circulation in order that vendors goods are properly described. With high volume printing, distribution costs per copy are probably in the region of £3 these days - but, obviously, the smaller events will be at a disadvantage here. Consistent high quality colour reproduction seems to be a widespread problem - and further improvement in catalogues must see a move towards illustrations being placed closer to the lot descriptions (rather than made up into pages - and photographically reduced to fit). But in this respect, it is the on-line catalogues that make even more startling comparison. The reproduction of pages of pictures scanned from printed catalogue material is simply not good enough. Illustrations must be placed adjacent to the appropriate description - and be enlargeable, so that they can be viewed properly. GWR Auctions (Pershore) have taken this art to a higher level still and build up a preview of their forthcoming items with high resolution images. The results must surely offer a lesson there for others?
What of Sheffield Railwayana Auctions in 2005 - and its new Bedfordshire-based management? From one Seasonal Mince Pie & Wine event to the most recent auction might well epitomize our opening line. However, had it been necessary to report on perceived developments at SRA during the past year, it would have been a thankless task; indeed our cessation of contemporaneous RCJ output was something of a blessing in disguise. Over 15 years, Ian Wright had built up his "organization" of Myers Grove events with professional and meticulous care, cultivating friendships and working relationships with all the "major players" in Railwayana. The goodwill generated in this way always tided him over the occasional set-backs. That goodwill - and the magnetic attraction that regularly drew visitors world-wide to his auctions - began to be tested during 2004 and it was not altogether a surprise when he announced his intended retirement. However the handover and the extraordinary manner in which the new proprietors applied their "new broom" was to presage a destruction of any remaining goodwill akin to the crash of Ratners. Maximizing profits isn't the only priority!
The "health" of the Railwayana Market has always been measured against the value of locomotive nameplates. Whether this be sensible or not today is questionable. However, since no other category can offer a more reliable bellwether, it must continue to be used for reference purposes. In December 2004, SRA set "another" world record for a mainline steam nameplate by selling A4 "Golden Fleece" for £60,000 (spurring a rash of rumours of manipulation). In December 2005, all three of the top priced nameplates were sold (to the same buyer again) for £89,200. And the word is out that an invoice is already being made out for him to buy "City of London" in March for around £50,000. Whilst it is good news for vendors that such a dedicated collector is in a position to acquire such highly rated items - and locomotives too for that matter (not only at auction but also in private deals with other well-known individuals), there is a high risk of a sudden end to such benefaction: loss of interest, external influences, human frailties, etc. The market is exceptionally thin at this level and repeated exclusion from the bidding process will eventually deter any private collector with more modest means. Indeed, one wonders where the underbidders are who can make such acquisitions so consistently expensive. There is remarkably little transparency with these transactions - bidding "on the book" or "by telephone" leaves much to be desired, where confidence needs to be re-established. Whilst SRA is the major participant in such "top-of-the-line material", it is by no means alone in needing to shoulder responsibility.
Another auctioneer - on explaining the failure to sell items - is on record as saying that "there are only a handful of serious nameplate collectors within the 'railwayana collecting world' and they certainly won't buy everything and most certainly won't buy anything that is 'complicated'". Perhaps a little severe when applied generally (rather than to "special" items) but, in a period of uncertainty, the last thing needed is the introduction of any "doubt of authenticity" (which is just one of the "complicating" ingredients). There are a number of interested parties - with other agendas - who are ever ready to complicate someone else's dealings. Borrowing from a current advertisement, they probably need to drink a lot of "Horlicks" to sleep at night!
Turning from nameplates, many other categories of railwayana seem to be particularly volatile at present. Locomotive worksplates - other than some rather exotic rarities - seem to have been in free-fall. Conversely, shedplates have been achieving a remarkable comeback - even though we seem no better in identifying the vast numbers of recast (or reproduction) items churned out in the 1970s. And what about Alloy Depot Plaques - particularly "uncarried" ones? Once shunned and blamed for bad reviews at minor auctions, they are now being sold "ex Stores" at very high prices. Aren't they still available from the manufacturer?
In presenting this consolidation of Railwayana Auction Realizations, you have (with RCJ 141/142) a complete classified record of all major, specialist sales in 2005. In this issue, they are presented in reverse chronological order. With standard layout, this will provide a handy and permanent record of the state of the market. We will not be publishing such material in print in future. Instead it will be recorded on the website and used to produce an annual survey. The website www.prorail.co.uk is where you will find current events, auction news & results and advertisements. The world has moved on from the time when RCJ was just about the only place to find items for sale and exchange - and Buyers and Sellers waited anxiously for the Postman's Knock on the First of the Month. Nowadays, those items would have been sold a month ago though our own on-line "Marketplace" or eBay.
Who Reads Editorials Anyway?
In the Editorial (p.6) in our final periodical issue (RCJ 142), we thought it had been made clear that that was to be "the last issue" and that future efforts were being concentrated on worthwhile new projects. The time scale was also clearly expressed - and the reasons given. As a result, we have to express our disappointment at the number of enquiries we have received, asking when the next issue would be out! The answer can only be "as and when ready" - which might be quite a long time. We have also been asked why certain links have been removed from the website.
We take pride in the quality of the information offered through the website and have considered carefully which external links are beneficial to our visitors / readers. Contrary to popular belief, the cost of providing a website is not negligible and providing a home for non-paying guests makes little sense. We have removed all the telephone auctions, since one has caused us unnecessary problems over the past four years - and, in future, will only list auctions and events that we consider reliable, financially secure and responsible for their obligations.
We have kept our counsel since taking over this business in 2001. However, it is now necessary to state that until the operators of Talisman Railwayana Auctions carry out their obligations to this Company, the print arm (Birmingham Railway Publications) will not be in a position to continue trading. We are not prepared to enter into expensive litigation (around £150/hour) to recover the amount due, which would cover the full cost of printing and distributing the next seven issues. We trust our subscribers and readers appreciate our dilemma - and take appropriate supportive action.