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,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine