Has the Recession caught up to collecting?

Growing up in a small town, one tends to remember a lot of details. Some of these jumped out at me when I recently drove through my hometown of Caledonia, Minn. Besides stirring a sense of nostalgia, they caused me to consider what is happening in our collecting hobbies.

After spending a weekend at my parents’ home completing the list of chores my mom taped to the cupboard above their phone, I decided to drive through my hometown before I returned to the bustle of the “Twin Cities.” Driving down Main Street always conjures so many memories of growing up in the Southeast Minnesota town in the 1960s and 1970s.

As I neared the eastern edge of town, I noticed that the big parking lot surrounding what I remember as “Comstock’s Construction” was no longer filled with dump trucks and graders, but rather, a variety of 1960s and 1970s muscle cars. I quickly recognized two things: First, these cars were for sale. Second, I knew some of these cars from my childhood!

Slowing to a crawl, I recognized Cougars, Mach 1s and GTOs… not just similar cars to those from my childhood, but the exact, same cars! I guess that is part of growing up in a small town—collector cars stay in the immediate area. As I drove out of town, I puzzled over what I had just seen.

 

Once in the collector’s realm, always in

Cruising down Badger Hill to begin the winding drive through the Crooked Creek valley, a route I took many times on foot, bicycle or even in a couple of the muscle cars I had just seen, I replayed in my mind what I often tell collectors: “Once an item enters the collector’s world, it will stay there unless a disaster (such as fire) befalls.” It may disappear into a collection for many years, but eventually, that collection will be reappear to be dispersed, whether due to death or change of collecting focus.

Clearly, this is what I had just observed with the muscle cars in Caledonia. I remembered those cars were prime prizes back when I was a kid. Though I was too young to own one when they first entered the collector market, I remember my older brothers’ excitement as their buddies bought these Chevys, Dodges and Fords. They talked on and on about “big” or “small” blocks as they began the process of modifying the cars with Edlebrock headers, Holly carbs and Thrush mufflers.

More than 35 years have passed since I saw those cars burn rubber in front of our school, at the town’s one set of stoplights or down Main Street. Those kids whom I remember driving the cars with youthful abandon were now in their late 50s, 60s or even early 70s. Faced with a decision that all collectors will ultimately consider, some of them must have decided it was time to pass the vehicles on to another generation of motorheads.

 

Who will buy them now?

There was a time when a person never had to put a “for sale” sign in a Pontiac GTO or a Plymouth Barracuda. Years ago, simple word-of-mouth would find more than one willing buyer.

Times have changed, however, as evidenced by the small “used muscle car” lot I drove past. Apparently, young drivers aren’t as interested in Detroit muscle of the 1960s and 1970s as they once were. Or if they are, they can’t afford to buy the cars from the generation who recognized their value as beefy, fast autos. The supply has increased beyond the demand.

As I thought about the whole “muscle car” market, I easily translated it to our world of military collectibles and vehicles. While it is true, “once a relic enters a collection, it isn’t going to disappear (apart from natural attrition due to decay or disaster),” the same supply and demand issues are impacting our hobby. Those who believe they are buying military relics as an investment or hedge against inflation have to really—I mean, really—think long and hard about the truths of the collecting market.

 

Why was the parking lot full?

That group of small town Minnesotan muscle cars sort of represents a common, current trend in a lot of artifact-driven hobbies, including our own of collecting military relics and historic military vehicles. What I didn’t explain is, even though they were nice looking cars, they weren’t great cars. There weren’t any matching number SS Camaros, Shelby Mustangs or original condition cars. Rather, the cars represented a mix of modifications, home garage restorations and tired paint jobs. In a word, they were “mediocre.”

Sure, they had been preserved, but so have thousands of other similar automobiles. These didn’t stand out. When there was a lot of demand for muscle cars, these “mediocre” cars would have sold right away—probably by word of mouth. But now, in 2012, the guys and girls who first enjoyed these cars back in the 1970s are pushing 60 or 70 years old. Their first thought for how to spend their discretionary cash is probably not buying the car of their youthful dreams. Rather, they are considering retirement, grandchildren or just some other passion that has captured their fancy.

Almost all of the cars that were restored during the past 40 or 50 years still exist. Worse yet, they are reemerging on the market at the same time. No one ever thought the supply of muscle cars would out-distance the demand. But it has. It isn’t just evidenced by a few unsold cars on a private lot in Caledonia, but can be seen in hundreds of small towns across America. Today, if a person wants to sell their muscle car, they have to consider the abundance of similar cars available, the waning number of buyers and the obvious overriding affect of a bad economy.

The same pattern is evident in WWII collecting, whether considering relics or military vehicles. During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, people clambered to buy U.S. GI accouterments, weapons and vehicles. Simultaneously, the Internet began to take over our lives.

Prior to the Internet, dealers believed they could dominate segments of the militaria market by buying all the Jeeps, shovels or M1 helmets in a particular geographic area. They were right—but only in that era before the Internet. With the world at the fingertips of any potential customer, it is impossible for a person to control any segment of the WWII market. If a person wants to buy a Jeep, web belt or helmet, there are no games to play… just log on, search and click, “buy it now.”

During the last few years, the supply of military relics has exploded. The Internet has provided a path to far more relics than one could ever find by just waiting for price lists to arrive in the mail or attending shows. In addition, dealers are discovering large caches of relics and vehicle parts in former Eastern Bloc nations, the Far East, South America and even in warehouses in the United States and Europe. People have figured out that military relics have value, so more and more people have been looking, whether at garage sales, farm closeouts or in nations of deposed dictators.

The result is more and more relics have entered the market at a time when not necessarily more buyers are entering the hobby. For now, supply is out-distancing demand. A real world example of this is the $45 I paid for a M1910 T-handle shovel back in 1997. At the time, I thought that was a high price. Recently discovered piles of unissued WWII shovels in Hungary, however, means that my $45 shovel probably isn’t worth that much today, 15 years later… regardless of “How much I have in it.” The supply of shovels drives how saleable my shovel is today, not how much I paid for it.

The fact is, hardly a month goes by when I don’t hear a story about some “cache” of relics or military vehicle parts that were recently discovered. Many of us remember the great discovery of US WWII tanker helmets back in the 1990s. That drove the prices down only to see them slowly recover now 20 years later and only after that initial pile of hundreds of helmets were sold.

The same happened with WWII Diamond T wreckers. In the 1970s and 1980s, they were nearly as rare as hen’s teeth. That is, until France and Spain sold all of their WWII wreckers to a collector who imported them to the United States. Today, with the supply greatly increased, the retail value of restored Diamond Ts has sunk to levels far below 1990s prices.

 

Supply isn’t the sole factor

The stagnancy of the military relic and vehicle markets, however, is not true across the board. Remember, this story all began with that parking lot of mediocre muscle cars. While common examples have lost their value, truly great examples are commanding record prices at auctions. The same is true for military relics and vehicles.

High quality, desirable items continue to command record prices. Medal groups, weapons, uniforms and personal items belonging to notable figures such as general officers, paratroopers or Special Forces continue to increase in value while the prices of common uniforms, accouterments and gear remain the same or even drop.

Similarly, prototype Jeeps, artillery pieces, tracked or wheeled armor and amphibious vehicles continue to increase in actual “sold for” prices. At the same time, though, M35s, CCKWs, WC-52s  and M37s (all of which were produced—and preserved—in the thousands) have remained stagnant or even dropped from the late 1990s price levels. Buyers continue to pay increasing prices for high quality, desirable, stand-out items.

Whether you are just entering our hobby, been at for many years or even considering how much longer you will be a gatherer, consider assembling a collection that focuses on quality rather than quantity. You may find the rewards—both intellectual and financial—will be better served.

 

Collect the Quality, Preserve the History.

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

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