Collecting venue makes a strong return

Greetings,

In the days before the Internet, it was easy to measure trends. Modern military collecting emerged from post-WWII gun shows and car swaps where military collectors went to find treasures. Before that point, the military collector lived in relative obscurity, forming singular relationships with others who shared a passion for historic military relics. Over time, the network of those who craved militaria blossomed. Some avenues for sharing the interests grew, only to peak and then all but disappear. One, though, is making a resurgence.

Following WWII, militaria collectors discovered flea markets, antique jumbles and gun shows were great venues for discovering militaria. This was the “gold rush period” of the hobby. As word spread that nuggets were found at these different events, more militaria enthusiasts rushed to join in the “diggings.” Many of these veins of relics provided valuable militaria for years as different prospectors dug deeper, pulling out uniforms, medals, helmets, guns, swords and other great items.

Over time, as piles of collected material grew, a few collectors stepped away from the pattern and decided to try their hand at being exclusive military dealers. From this group of “collector/dealers,” a few entrepreneurs emerged who gathered addresses of potential customers and mailed them typed lists of available collectibles.

Finally, the militaria hobby gained enough momentum, that it became plausible to host “all militaria” relic shows. The dealer/collectors would bring would offer their year’s gatherings at little more than wholesale prices. For about 20 years, shows remained the most important place for military enthusiasts to make significant, cost-effective additions to their collections.

Simultaneously, the mail-order militaria dealers became legitimate, full-time businesses. Hardly a week would pass, when a collector couldn’t get a typed or printed list in the mail, scan it for items and make the phone call in the hope that he was beating someone else to the item.

There were very few auction houses dedicated to the hobby. Manion’s and Roger Steffen perfected the system of the catalog/mail auction.

Through that whole period of the 1970s and 1980s, though, shows remained the primary venue for collector-to-collector or dealer-to-collector interaction. That all changed in 1994, when a small online business called “eBay” entered the arena.

Those early days of eBay were grand. It was another true “gold rush” in the hobby. Relics poured onto the market at below wholesale prices. The truly astute and technologically enabled capitalized on this. Just like any gold rush, the first to enter the fray made themselves loads of money. The late-comers mined the old veins and continued to fish out some value. The eBay vein of “militaria gold” provided plenty of treasure for about 15 years. One can still find some flakes and nuggets, but the rush is over. Like any gold rush, after the initial discovery, the charlatans move in to capitalize on the success and failure of others. On eBay, those charlatans take the form of the forgers, fakers or those who prey on the unknowing or uneducated customer.

But the story doesn’t end there. The military collecting hobby is very strong, vibrant and isn’t going away any time soon. Just like the gold miners of 1849, militaria entrepreneurs are always looking for the next fertile diggings. The question is, however, have they discovered the next venue in the post-eBay era?

Based on what I have seen over the past three years, I would have to say that they have. And it isn’t a “new” field, but rather, returning to a tried and tested venue: The military relic show.

During the late 1990s, shows really suffered as dealers and collectors followed the (often misguided) notion that they could “make more on eBay.”  Shows became a tiring array of seconds and a waste of time for any serious collector. One could have greater success watching eBay and employing sniper programs to make substantial collecting gains (I was one of those guys… I assembled a very impressive 10th Mountain Division collection primarily off of eBay). The general consensus was, “Why go to a show when I can find better stuff on eBay and never leave my house?”

But, business being business, eBay couldn’t coast on its laurels and trust in the model that made them great. Increasing regulations, rules and fees has caused many of the great sellers away from eBay. With no viable place to turn to sell their products without a dizzying array of rules or fees, they rediscovered the military shows that had continued to limp along during the “eBay years.”

Thankfully, the show promoters hung in there. Many are still in recovery mode, but as I said earlier, during the past three years, I have really seen a resurgence of significant, quality items and dealers at shows. Whereas I had all but abandoned shows by 2000, I am now looking at the show season and picking the ones where I am sure I will be able to visit the tables of the dealers I know find the kind of stuff I like to buy.

As it is for so many others, the Show of Shows is my “season kick-off.” I have been saving money all winter and am excited to see what treasures will appear this Feb. 24-27, 2011, in Louisville, Ky. For those who have never been, the SOS is the military hobby’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. The hobby’s best dealers bring out their finest items. It used to have a real “U.S. militaria” theme, but the abundance of international dealers and customers has turned the show into more of a general militaria show with the heaviest emphasis on 20th Century. For more info and important updates, check out their web site or join their group on Facebook.

I have never been “skunked” at the SOS.  When I collected WWII 10th Mountain stuff, I always found unique items. My WWI AEF Tank Corps and photograph collection has really grown as a result of the SOS. Old-fashioned networking has really helped and, although I participate in a number of Internet forums, nothing beats face to face to network one’s way to the coolest relics.

2011 promises to be a great year in the hobby. A lot of old, significant collections are turning. If you are active in the hobby, you won’t want to remain passive, sitting at home watching eBay auctions this year. This one is going to be all about networking, establishing “real-time” relationships and deals that culminate with a handshake rather than a “TTYL” and a smiley face.

See you on the floor,

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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2 thoughts on “Collecting venue makes a strong return

  1. CB on said:

    Hay dere Jaggie,
    Nice writup indeed.
    Back in the 60’s and 70’s some larger coin shops in major cities here handled USA and foriegn O & M and carried a supply of British, Japanese and German replacement ribbons.
    As a mail order foreign coin and paper money dealer I handled mostly Chinese and Japanese and also had tables at various coin shows around the country.
    Ebay……..I have greatly reduced my time looking for any "good deals" on accumulations of mixed militaria or bulk lots of USA ribboned medals which have all but disappeared. An occasional QV campaign medal or USSR WW II O or M will appear and get quite competitive bidding or reserve maybe a bit to high. I only snag an occasional foreign or USA officer’s hat at a bargain price. Most USA officer’s hats are overpriced but the choicer ones do get a lot of bidding action.
    Just ran across a few Roger S. catalogs………..he seems to have disappeared under strange circumstances and like Manion’s of old the financials apparantly were in the hands of the grim reaper……….whereas today the auction firms in Europe are having a superb business handling many choice collections and hitting some new "highs" in the results.
    Haven’t received my 2011 Medal Yearbook as yet and recently noticed I was updating a 2009 edition. Geesh !!!
    Well, hope this is of interest………..but I recall your article where you mentioned many dealers at military shows are still overpriced and you forgot to mention this fact in this latest article………shows are coming back but dealers should review there wares and adjust prices asked to current levels and this will obviously increase their sales. The old fact that a dealer will not sell below his cost is his own demise and the term I use setting up at model train shows where I usually accept most all offers is: "I am in the moving business, not the warehousing business!!" This gets a big smile from my customers and they respond usually with: "See you at the next show and please dig into your stock and find me more of what I am looking for." One older fellow has a small group of youths and he buys various rolling stock for these boys to super detail…….he comes around late in the day and asks for a little discount…….and I reply: "Just pick out whatever and I’ll give you a real deal." Heck, by then I am well into the profit mode and could care less if I lose a few bucks or maybe break even………that old dusty stock is gone !!!! It is called financial fluidity perhaps and other good deals maybe just around the corner.
    Cheers,
    Colinski II
    CRB II Enterprises
    Central WI

  2. Tom Waller on said:

    John,

    I just finished reading your article on the return of the militaria show (JAG files, March 2011). I agree with your points, and am looking forward to seeing more dealers return to the floor. Just last week I went to a large flea market held at the same venue as the "Nation’s gun show" in Chantilly, VA. There were more people with militaria there than I have seen in many years. There was a dealer who had a German K-98 bayonet priced at $150. In my opinion, that would be at the higher end of the price range. I told him so, and he replied, "well, they are difficult to replace". He then conceded that similar examples could be found for less. So am I to conclude that the buyer must pay for restocking? The point I am making is that some dealers seem to expect the buyer to pay for their mistakes or bad timing by setting prices higher than the current market value of an item. The fact is, that all of us are affected by the economy, be it a loss of retirement funds or the value of our homes. Many of us have to eat those losses, even if we are not at fault.

    As a long time patron of local shows, I have also seen that some dealers will not budge on prices, even though they are not selling much. They complain about the cost of attending the show and overhead as reasons for their prices, but they forget that we pay a stiff entrance fee ($12 at the latest gun show at Chantilly) and have less to spend. How much do they spend lugging the same crap around year after year, with the hopes that some sap will eventually pay too much for it? Maybe they should stand at the door and see how much militaria goes out the front door. At the last Chantilly gun show, they set an attendance record of 22,000 tickets, according to some dealers. Yet, I saw precious few buys of militaria. Ammo and new guns were the hot items.

    On the other hand, collectors who need to raise some cash have to settle for bottom dollar from dealers when trying to sell their dearly paid for items. It is a double whammy for the collector. They can’t sell without a loss, or buy and benefit from the drop in demand. It is Econ-101 turned upside down. Dealers: Supply vs demand equals value of item. If the militaria show is going to make a comeback, the dealers are going to have to get off their inflated egos and prices.

    Tom Waller

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