Published: December 11, 2012
Jerry Greene got his first train set in 1946 when he was just 3 years old, from his father, Ben, a toy train dealer. He grew up in Brooklyn playing with toy trains, so it was only natural that when he was 18 and had moved to Philadelphia, Jerry started acquiring his own collection of trains.
“My dad became a dealer of railroad magazines. He didn’t collect Lionel trains anymore and sold the ones he had. I wanted to recapture my childhood, so I started collecting,” says Jerry Greene. Putting “Wanted: Trains to Buy” signs up in his record stores (more signs went up as he added more stores), scouring local toy fairs and antiques markets and visiting people’s homes to look at their train collections, Greene embarked on a collecting journey that would span 50 years.
Today, the Jerni Collection (named for Jerry and his wife Nina, who not only supported but encouraged his collecting), which was quietly amassed piece by piece and rarely shown to other collectors, is making its museum debut at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) in “Holiday Express: Toys & Trains from the Jerni Collection,” on view through January 6.
While the colossal collection numbers more than 35,000 pieces and fills six rooms in Greene’s 5,400-square-foot basement, the exhibition cherry-picks the collection to present highlights from the golden age of toy making in Europe †some 350 pieces in all, and what pieces they are! Handmade and hand painted colorful train stations, model trains, accessories from well-dressed figures to working kerosene lanterns from renowned makers such as Marklin, Bing, Carette and Rock & Graner will delight viewers of all ages.
With early aspirations of becoming an artist and enamored of architecture, Greene remembers walking around lower Manhattan as a teenager marveling at the city’s bones. While his career took him into music instead, his love of architecture translated into toy train stations, a featured part of the exhibition. “When I started this collection, I only collected the stations. Most people get the trains and then they buy the accessories. I did the reverse. I was more interested in the buildings and bought the trains as accessories,” he said.
Marklin, the “Rolls-Royce” of the European toy makers in the Nineteenth Century, made more than 150 different train stations, and Greene says he has them all. Ditto for the train stations made by Bing.
Leading the standouts in the exhibition is an elevated rail station by Marklin, circa 1895, said to be the only one in original condition in existence. It is a centerpiece in its installation in the New-York Historical Society’s Judith and Howard Berkowitz Sculpture Court and features a ground-level track, a working luggage elevator and an elegant curved double staircase going from the ground floor to the raised platform. Accessories adding to the authentic feel of the display are benches for sitting, rare five-arm and three-arm gas lamps from 1901, a rare ticket-stamping machine and a rare Marklin no. 1501 station buffet, made in 1900.
Other fine examples of stations on view are a Marklin (gauge 2) onion-dome train station with a plethora of accessories from 1900; the largest station Rock & Graner (and the only extant example known) made at 18 by 40 by 22 inches, boasting three waiting halls, and elegant with a pair of clock towers, as well as a Marklin garden “Central” station in a pleasing pale yellow with green borders around the upper level windows, and a three-domed roof topped with a pair of weathervanes. This garden station is among the most elaborate of all stations and includes working clocks in the tower, as well as working water fountains.
Several fine toys related to trains are showcased, such as a wonderful Ferris wheel by German toy maker Ernest Planck of Nuremberg, who crafted the toy as an accessory for a stationary steam engine.
Stephen R. Edidin, chief curator at NYHS, curated the exhibition hand-in-hand with the Greenes, and said the society focused on Marklins in the exhibit and particularly these “gorgeous, gorgeous train stations and the daily life that goes around them.” In NYHS’s iconic rotunda at its 77th Street entrance, the Marklin elevated station has its own display, which whets appetites for the rest of the exhibit upstairs in the Luce Center, where case after case shows the elegant stations and a wealth of accessories, including Marklin’s largest train station.
The collection ties nicely into NYHS’s collections as Marklin had agreements with stores like F.A.O. Schwarz in Manhattan to sell certain pieces exclusively there, so the exhibit also tells a piece of New York’s story, Edidin says.
Several fine post offices from most of the major makers are also displayed, including a Bing from 1907, a circa 1900‱5 Carette and a scarce Marklin, circa 1900, in two pieces with the office in front and stables in the rear. Like many items in Greene’s collection, who constantly sought out the best of the best, the Marklin is the only known extant post office of its type.
These buildings and toys were made to be played with, and over the years some dings and loss to paint are expected. Condition was always a driving factor for Greene and most of his pieces look like they just came out of the box, belying their status as centenarians. “Condition was the most important thing to me; I tried to get the best examples of the pieces I collected,” he said.
Greene’s collection actually began with American trains, but by the late 1970s when he had acquired almost everything Lionel made after World War II, he sold off his collection and took to collecting European trains. While he acquired gems from Europe, his collecting never took him far from home, and he never traveled more than 100 miles to buy.
He advertised in the trade and newspapers and he and Nina made house calls to look at trains and scoured local flea and antiques markets from Renningers to York and the Black Angus. He attended the Train Collectors Association train shows twice a year from about 1969 up to three years ago, when he stopped collecting.
“I would quietly buy piece by piece. I never bought collections and in the 50 years [of collecting] I had maybe 15 people who came to the house who were collectors,” he said, saying he did not want to invite competition.
Having “completed” his collection, he offered it as a single lot at Sotheby’s about two years ago. While there was tremendous interest †the preview exhibition drew more than 10,000 visitors †the space needed to display such a large collection proved too daunting to other collectors and the collection returned to Greene’s home. It was in New York, however, that Louise Mirrer, president and chief executive officer of the NYHS, saw the collection and hoped to bring a piece of it to the society.
Greene hopes that the collection might stay in New York City and would love if a museum, such as NYHS, could acquire the collection so that it can be enjoyed by many. Mirrer hopes the same. “It’s a staggering collection. On the one hand because of the enormous amount of pieces and on the other hand the exceptional beauty,” she said. “We always use the beauty of the object to draw people into the story.”
Mirrer notes that the collection has been the subject of much discussion, and she hopes by introducing it to a wider audience via this exhibit, donor interest might be prompted with a view toward seeing if the society could acquire the collection.
Once a collector, always a collector. Now that Jerry has stopped acquiring toys and trains, he has found something else to collect and that does not take up lots of shelf space. “To replace my collecting the trains and toys, I now collect the rights to the different records and merchandise I sell,” he said, noting his company, www.oldies.com, now has both a music and movie label.
The Jerni Collection is notable not just as a fine homage to Nineteenth Century toy making, but as preserving a slice of history. Many of the buildings and structures the toy makers made were based on real places, most of which do not exist anymore, either destroyed in the war or demolished to make room for the new. One such item is the Marklin girder bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), circa 1805. The actual bridge was destroyed in World War I and there are only a few of these toy bridges known to still exist.
“For me, these wonderful objects are a part of history. They depict what Germany looked like many years ago, ” Greene said. “There’s a lot of historical content to the collection. It’s now time to show them in public, so everyone can appreciate them. I hope they bring as much joy to others as they have brought to me.”
The New-York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West. For general information, www.nyhistory.org or 212-873-3400.
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