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Rare Handmade Trains Delight Kids and Adults at the Historical Society

By Emily Frost | November 28, 2012 7:19am

UPPER WEST SIDE — Prepare to be enchanted.

A portion of the prized Jerni Collection — vintage toys and trains valued at more than $80 million — is on museum display for the first time ever.

The rare collection owned by Jerry and Nina Greene is typically tucked away in their cavernous  5,400-square-foot basement in Philadelphia.

But it's on display through Jan. 6 at the New York Historical Society Museum at 77th Street and Central Park West to spark interest among major backers in buying the entire collection for permanent exhibition.

Jerry Greene said he's had offers from private collectors to buy parts of the set that's valued by Sotheby's at more than $80 million, but he's holding out hope of keeping it intact so that viewers can "see them more as works of art than toys."

A museum setting would be ideal, he said.

"We could fill the entire museum if you had the trains running. Kids would go crazy because they don't see things like that," he said.

The models include train stations, sheds, bridges, tunnels, carousels, Ferris wheels, refreshment carts and colorful figurines — all hand-painted and dating from 1850 to 1940.

During the 1980s, Greene, an entrepreneur behind the successful Philadelphia record retail chain Oldies, said he spent three nights a week visiting private homes and amassing toy trains. He has an eye for treasures made during the Golden Age of European toy making and only buys models in near perfect or perfect condition, he said.

"I'm excited about [the collection] because I feel I did something right," Greene said recently as he surveyed the Historical Society exhibition with his family. 

Greene said he's kept the collection very private for security reasons, inviting only relatives and close friends into his basement. A portion of the set was available for viewing at one point at Sotheby's, he said, but this is the first museum exhibit.

Still, he said he trusts the museum to take good care of the rare assortment of collectibles.

The train stations, including models of Grand Central Station and famous English depots, are among Greene's favorites.

"You can turn on the [train] bell and have working kerosene lamps and water fountains," he said about the toys' real-world touches.

"The detail is incredible," he added. "It explains how things existed."

The Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection exhibit is free with museum admission. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. It's open Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adult tickets are $15, seniors and educators are $12, students are $10, kids ages 5 to 13 are $5 and kids 4 and under are free.