Is collecting trend-susceptible?

The “Beloit List” recently revealed a changing perspective of young people in the United States. Assembled each year by staff at Beloit College in southern Wisconsin since 1998, the Beloit College Mindset List, provides a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college in the fall. It has quickly become an internationally monitored catalog of the changing worldview of each new college generation. As I read it this year, I began to wonder how the changing mindset affects our hobby.

Reading the Beloit List, I learned that America’s college freshmen (born in 1994), can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it. For them, women have always piloted war planes and space shuttles and there have always been blue M&Ms, but no tan ones. The shocking list of what young college students perceive as “their world” serves as a stark reminder to those of us beyond our college years that the popular topics within our hobby—just like that of the nation– are susceptible to changing points of view.

I became especially aware of this during the Iola Military Vehicle and Gun Show this past August. Discussing the weekend events with the show’s founder, Chet Krause, I listened as he reminisced. “You know, when I started this show more than 20 years ago,” he explained, “It was just me and some of my friends.” He went on, sharing something that has caused me to think a lot about our hobby, “We were all WWII veterans and liked the vehicles we used in the War. Now look at the show. It is d@#ned hard to find a WWII vehicle!”

He was right. When I first attended the show 13 years ago, there were more than 150 WWII vehicles. Of course, nearly 130 of them belonged to Chet or his buddy from down the road, Ralph Doubek. Regardless of ownership, the show had a clear WWII-orientation.

Time marched on. Chet sold his collection and Ralph’s was disbursed after his death. Whereas many thought the show would suffer, it has actually rebounded and flourishes. But, as Chet noticed, the scenery has changed.

In 2012, owners exhibited about 110 vehicles. Of those, only about 30 were WWII vehicles. The rest were all post-WWII, many dating to as recently as the 1990s.

“As recently as the 1990s…” Typing that, I realize that statement covers a span of more than 20 years! There were military vehicle operators and dealers on the Iola show grounds who were born sometime during that span of time. To those people, still a minority on the show grounds, WWII was not the war of their fathers, mothers, uncles or aunts. Rather, it was the war of the grandparents and great uncles and aunts! For them, they have learned about WWII through movies, books and articles, rather than shared with them through talking with participants.

 

The Power of Nostalgia

Dealers and collectors shy away from discussing the effects of nostalgia on our hobby. Nostalgia—that warm glowing feeling we feel about the recent past— is like a fine wine. A little bit of it can enhance—or even heighten–our sense of history, but too much of it, can cause some really poor decisions.

How does that play out in our hobby? Well, the effects of nostalgia on the hobby go back as long as folks have been collecting. For example, a “recent” example was the nostalgia for the heroes of the American Revolution. By recent, I mean the efforts in the 1840s when daguerreian photographers clamored to capture likenesses of the remaining Revolutionary War veterans. While preserving images of the fast-fading independence fighters, there was an underlying hope of being the artist who photographed the last veteran. In essence, they wanted to “cash in” on the wave of nostalgia Americans were feeling for the passing of a generation. Though we are fortunate to have many of these images, they actually reveal very little about the War of Independence because all of the sitters were photographed in their contemporary, 1840s clothing in 1840 studio settings. The drive to capture the photos failed to capture the history that each veteran represented.

 

Nostalgia is Big Money

A lot of people will say that the explosion of interest in collecting US WWII relics has piqued, fueled by the release of the movie, “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 followed by the 2001 HBO mini-series, “Band of Brothers.” The cinematic presentations certainly didn’t hurt the hobby, but the filmmakers were capitalizing on what they knew was a formula for success: Historical dramas that play on the nostaligic heart strings of the audience make money.

At the time, most WWII veterans were in there 70s—a perfect time. Most were still very healthy, retired and enjoying a new family generation of grandchildren. They were the ideal age to share their memories, souvenirs and experiences. Add to that, most of their children were then in their 30s or 40s—a time when many begin to feel very warmly about their parents, coupled with the financial independence of being able to pursue extracurricular activities like collecting. We (I was certainly one of them, collecting relics related to my dad’s WWII service with the mountain and ski troops) all believed that WWII would reign supreme in the collecting world.

But now, 20 years later, the landscape has evolved. WWII veterans are now in their late 80s or 90s, their children are now in their 50s and 60s and their grandkids are just embarking on their college or professional careers. While the demise of WWII collecting is nowhere on the horizon, the nostalgic-factor of its popularity is shifting. This will, without a doubt, affect the hobby.

 

Does Nostalgia Really Drive Collecting?

Remember the 90th anniversary of WWI? The 100th of the Spanish American War, the 125th–and currently the 150th of the Civil War? Dealers stocked up on relics of each conflict anticipating an explosion of interest—that never occurred. What they failed to realize is nostalgia is tied to the present experience, not to historical events. None of those historical anniversaries had ties to living people who were somewhere in their “ideal collecting age range” (some estimate this at around 30-65, give or take a decade).

For example, consider Model A automobiles, once extremely popular and collectible, but now very difficult to sell. After the first generation of restorers got out of the hobby, they passed the cars to their kids and grandkids—two groups who didn’t have the previous owners’ warm-glow feeling about the cars. The cars plummeted in value and desirability.

Bear in mind, WWII touched millions of people and families. The interest will stick around much longer than it did for the American Revolution, the War of 1812 or even the American Civil War. But, the interest level is changing. A combination of a bad economy with the aging of veterans and their children has resulted in the value of common material dropping (such as field gear, ration books, Jeeps and enlisted insignia), the proliferation of fraudulent “unique” items (for example, painted helmets, flight jackets, vehicles with sketchy combat provenance or medal groups) and the price escalation of quality items (named meritorious medals, paratrooper and USMC uniform groups, general officer items and amphibious and armored vehicles).

You might ask, “If nostalgia is waning for WWII, what, if anything, is replacing it?” It is a good question, and of course, publishers, dealers and collectors would love to have an answer.

Simply put, a society (given all things remain relatively constant and stable) yearns for the good feelings of about 40-50 years prior to the current date. That’s the point when people start to feel older (roughly put, 60-70 years old), but clearly remember the time when they were young and excited with the prospect of the future  (again, roughly put, 20-40 years old). In the past, the folks in their 60s and 70s had generally felt a sense of financial security, so were able to pursue interests—some of which, were capturing the feelings of their youth through the purchase of relics, vehicles or some other method of reliving their early years. Simultaneously, their children, probably in their 30s or 40s, go through a period of wanting to reconnect with their parents’ generation, often through collecting.

It isn’t just in collecting where this plays out. Take a look at automobiles, fashion and dance trends. It’s no coincidence that automobile manufacturers have invested so much into “retro” designs like the “New Beetle,” the Mustang, Charger or Camaro. They understand the power of nostalgia. They aren’t marketing these cars to 20-year-olds. These cars are aimed squarely, and directly, at the nostalgia-susceptible group: 50 to 70 year olds who may, or may not, have satisfied their desire to own the original cars back in the 1960 and 1970s. You just need to turn on television and see the proliferation of advertising that relies on nostalgia, whether it in the background music or the products being offered. Nostalgia sells.

 

SO IF WWII IS WANING, WHAT’S NEXT?

If this explanation of the power of nostalgia to influencing collecting is accurate, that would mean interest in WWII having piqued in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and it will slowly slip off over the next few decades. Ultimately, it will sink to a comfortable level of scholarly research and appreciation similar to what many Americans now posses for the American Civil War.

So does that would mean Vietnam collecting is the next best thing. Well, as far as nostalgia is concerned, the answer is, “yes.” Vietnam veterans, on average, are in their late 60s or early 70s. Their children tend to be hitting their 40s. Nostalgia will set in hard.

But, the thing to remember in regard to Vietnam is this: Far fewer people were touched by the Vietnam War than those who experienced WWII. Therefore, the number of those feeling nostalgic about the Vietnam era is, as a result, much smaller than those who felt so interested in WWII in the past 20 years. Even though the nostalgia formula points squarely at the Vietnam era as the next best thing in collecting, the numbers of people who will experience it are just a fraction of those who had—and still retain—the strong attachment to WWII history. Collecting Vietnam-related material will never achieve the same levels of WWII collecting.

In fact, no historical event since 1945 will achieve the same level of collecting interest as WWII. For now, and the foreseeable future—despite Chet’s observation at the Iola MV Show—WWII will reign supreme among collectors. As to whether supply can keep up with the demand for quality relics and vehicles is a question, we will just have to wait and see.

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

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