Collecting Aster Locomotives
Both established collectors and enthusiasts thinking about their first Aster purchase, often ask about the investment potential of the Aster marque. I have tended to be wary of getting into that particular debate since I would not wish to mislead anyone. But it is a valid question and it clearly does interest people. I don’t recall ever reading any material about this topic before, so let’ try and nail this now!
Everyone has a slightly different reason for owning their Aster models. The reasons are probably as numerous as there are models. But whichever way you look at it, there are probably three primary reasons, acknowledged by most Aster enthusiasts, which are fulfilled by Aster and not by other makers. The reasons are firstly, Asters are robust and reliable workers on the track and are capable of pulling a prototypical load at a scale speed. Secondly they are beautiful showcase models of exhibition standard but are still capable of detailed improvement if desired. Thirdly, they tend to hold / in value over time.
It is this third point we will look at now but lets get a few facts on the table before we look at the detail.
The Aster Basics
The Aster Hobby Co. Inc. of Yokohama, Japan has been making gauge one live steam models since 1975. In 35 years they have produced more than 70 different models (often with livery variations). Prototypes modelled by Aster have come from the UK, mainland Europe, the USA and Japan plus a single example from Australia! The models produced in the first few years are more basic in character compared to the later offerings, which feature very full specifications. All models are made in world-wide limited editions in both factory built ready to run and kit formats. Incidentally, anyone interested in the history of Aster, the seminal influence of Fulgurex SA. and their design consultant Mr J T van Reimsdijk, should read the extensive review published by Gauge One Model Railway Association in the Newsletter and Journal in 1997.
Most models are produced in 1/32nd scale but Aster have manufactured several for the G-scale enthusiast including the currently available Colorado & Southern mogul with its famous ‘bear trap’ chimney. It should be mentioned that Japanese prototypes are made to 1/30th scale since Japanese mainlines are of 3′ 6″ gauge.
When the subject of Asters is mentioned the first thing non-owners tend to pick up on is their cost. Certainly Aster have never been cheap (in the UK we have always had high import duties and VAT to contend with) but Asters have always been considered as very good value for money. The current GWR / BR Castle class costs a little over £5000 ready to run or slightly over £4000 for the kit. The same model from a professional builder made to the same detail and specification with lost wax brass castings (no whitemetal on an Aster) would cost more than double. And perhaps three times as much!
In this article we will look at the collectability of Asters. Perhaps we will examine the other facets another day.
Frequently asked Questions
“If I buy a new Aster today will it gain in value?”
“Will the profit be better than inflation?”
“Will it be better than leaving the money in the Building Society?”
All that can be said is that if past experience is to be a guide to the future then all Asters will hold in value over time and may well increase in value. However, the size of the increase in value does not appear to be dependent on age of the model or the quantity produced, there are more complex factors at work.
Let’s take some examples. The Japanese National railways ‘Mogul’ was produced in 1975 in a run of 1500 examples. This is a nice simple single cylinder loco of the “one shot” operational type. The value of this model today in the UK is around the £750-£850 mark for an unsteamed mint and boxed example – about 150% gain in 35 years – not a very startling result! By comparison the SR ‘Schools’ class produced at the same time in an edition of 3000 (with a similar spec but two cylinders instead of one) is changing hands for about £1700 – £1800 – a gain of 400% on its 1975 cost. Clearly in the UK the Schools is going to be more sought after than the JNR Mogul but that doesn’t explain everything.
In my view there are several factors that individually or collectively influence value. They are:-
- Year of manufacture. Models made in the early days have had longer to increase in value.
- Quantity made. The fewer of a particular prototype the better.
- Quantity in the UK. Exchange rates often influenced the quantity imported into the UK.
- Popularity of prototype. The A3 Flying Scotsman and LMS Duchess are doing well in the UK.
- Specification. High spec means higher value.
- Complexity and/or degree of detail. Ditto.
- Livery variations. The BR 9F and Evening Star are hard to find.
- Electric or Steam. Electric versions can be rare but many enthusiasts prefer steam.
- Availability of appropriate rolling stock. The model looks better with the right train.
- Factory built or kit built. Factory built is best. But kit built by a (named) experienced builder is OK.
- Run or not run. Mint, boxed with instructions, drawings and tools is the best.
Not surprisingly, British outline models tend to be the most popular in the UK. The SR ‘King Arthur’ class is very hard to find indeed and values in excess of £2600 are being mentioned.
However, the LNER / BR class A4 is by far the most eagerly collected British ‘non-current’ Aster. A mint un-steamed factory built Mallard or Sir Nigel Gresley command prices over £7000 (against about £1500 when new in 1984) whereas the slight anomaly is ‘Silver Link’ in its three shades of grey livery, may be had for perhaps £6000 in mint condition.
Collectability is not confined to UK outline models. There is interest in American outline models too. Take for example the Union Pacific ‘Big Boy’ – the biggest Aster ever built. One recently is said to have changed hands for £12,000: so few come to the market that guidelines are almost impossible to set. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania K4, New York Central Hudson and Southern Pacific ‘Daylight’ are slightly more common but all are hard to find and consequently command good prices. However, the V&T Reno, an early ‘wild west’ style loco can be had for very modest cost indeed!
The values quoted here are for mint factory built examples. Used and/or kit built models tend to be lower. Unmade kits tend to be almost as high as factory built, particularly for the earlier models. A kit can be constructed to the owner’s requirements with modifications made as required.
When I am asked today about which models are likely to gain most in years to come I always explain that there are no easy answers. My own personal choices of the current and recent models, which may do well in time, are these:
- The GNR Stirling Single. Reasons – only 350 made, very few brought into the UK market. An attractive model with novel features (Stephenson valve gear).
- The DB or DR BR62. ‘Mammoth’ 4-6-4T. Reasons – only 300 made, very few in UK. Detailed and very convincing visually. Novel features (working lights).
- The DB or DR BR03 Pacific tender loco. Reasons – similar to BR62 although no working lights. Additionally very large and particularly convincing visually. An excellent and powerful runner too. Electric version available.
- The BR version of the LNER Flying Scotsman.
This is just a very basic review of a complex subject. The person with the Mamod and simple oval of track may think that the all this ‘high value’ Aster stuff is irrelevant to them. But they should remember that there are very many second-hand Asters around in used condition that can cost the same as a simple model from any of the myriad of small makers. Such a model can be improved and enjoyed and will also have a value which will probably grow in the years to come.
The pleasure derived from an Aster in its operation, restoration, or possible conversion to something else can be the gateway to a whole new interest in our fascinating garden railway hobby.