State of the Militaria Hobby

Greetings,

Having just returned from the Show of Shows (SOS), I have fielded several questions about the health of hobby. The economic doldrums, the instability of Mideast, rising unemployment only outpaced by rising fuel costs and a general sense of apprehension have many asking, “What’s the health of the hobby?”

I certainly don’t have any special view, but I guess my position does afford me the opportunity to overhear a lot of conversations and to observe several patterns. Before drawing any conclusions, however, I have to ensure that I don’t let my own collecting successes and failures color my observations.

The first thing I will report about the SOS is that it remains the largest all-militaria show in the United States. With more than 1,600 tables, the show is sold out months ahead of the late February date and there is a long waiting list of collectors and dealers who want tables. Public attendance is generally in the 5,000-6,000 range over three days. This year was no different.

I had four tables covered with what I considered “Wal-mart” collectibles. Not great stuff, just general WWI and WWII items priced very low. This seems to be a formula that works for me: Quantity, solid quality (that is, no fakes, questionable items clearly indicated on labels), low prices marked on the items (nothing drives me away from a table faster than not seeing prices on items!), and having bins and tubs of small items to search through. I rarely had a chance to sit down from Wednesday night setup through Sunday afternoon teardown. Folks love bargains and the thrill of possibly discovering something the guy standing behind the table didn’t recognize.

I didn’t get away from tables except for bathroom breaks so any observations were made on the fly. What I did observe, though, was that many tables had exceptional, high-quality items. When I did stop to take a closer look, I experienced a high degree of “sticker shock.” Items that should have cost $1,000 or $1,500 were marked $4,000 or $5,000. The same was truer for smaller items… if an item normally sold for $100, it was marked $400 or $500. What was going on? Was the world economy impacting our tight little fraternity?

I discussed this with several veteran collectors who stopped at my table to chat. The general consensus was this: As many collectors drift away from selling on eBay, they have dug into their collections to select and price items with the attitude, “if someone is stupid enough to pay this, I will sell it.” It was like a real-time “Buy it Now” price like we see on eBay… way beyond normal retail, but if someone really wants it…

The “big” buyers, that is, dealers buying for resale, generally reported that the show was really off. A couple saying, “Worst buying SOS in a long time.” Conversely, the same dealers did report, “Best selling SOS.” It seems buyers were there ready with cash. Quality items sold fast. “Wal-mart militaria” (like what I had on my tables) sold equally fast, but you have to sell a whole lot of buttons and Ike jackets to pay the expenses! What I did notice, however, was middle-of-the-road militaria, if priced at last year’s retail, sat on the tables unsold for the entire weekend.

In my observation, I would venture that non-U.S. attendance was down this year. Stands to reason, the Euro, Pound and Yen are just as weak as the dollar these days.

Curiously, I had several conversations about Internet collector forums. It would seem more and more veteran collectors are leaving forums or simply don’t make the time for them anymore. Several did discuss that they use Facebook to connect with small, tight communities of “their own kind” (be they helmet collectors, WWI nuts, Civil War image traders or reenactors”). It is far too early to predict the demise of forums, but there is a very obvious shift occurring.

Finally, one trend that has existed in the hobby from the beginning is changing. In the past, one might walk up to a dealer’s table full of unpriced items and select an object with the question, “How much?”, only to receive an answer that began with, “Well, I’ve got X dollars in it….”  I have railed on this before: As I collector, I don’t care one bit what someone has in a particular object. Starting the negotiating with telling me how much a person has spent on an object usually implies to me that they think it somehow justifies the price they paid, whether it was too much or not. At this year’s SOS, I heard the same statement uttered many times, but it really seem to be restricted to the older, veteran dealers and collectors. The younger set seem to accept the fact that people paid way too much for stuff in the 1990s and 2000s and that the potential buyer is not responsible for those poor purchase decisions. Coincidentally, this is the same trend happening out in “the real world.” In my humble opinion, it is great to see the militaria hobby developing the same tolerances and expectations as the rest of the business world.

The SOS can set the tone for the entire show season, and it remains to be seen if this is true for 2011. If it is, we will continue to see great items emerge to market, at first for way too much money but then, slowly descend to realistic prices allowing new, significant collections to form. We are on the cusp of a new collecting age. The next couple of years will reveal if the hobby leaps forward or falls flat.

Be wise, be patient and prepared to buy when that great piece appears,

John A-G
Editor, Military Trader & Military Vehicles Magazine

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3 thoughts on “State of the Militaria Hobby

  1. John:
    I just bought at a local gun show in Jackson MS, an eclectic lot/group of; 1- heer panzer breast(M-39 black)eagle, 1- Gau Bayr. Ostmark tinnie, AND 1 -WWII tank corps collar disk, FOR $50. I would be VERY comfortable in saying that my purchase reflects the TRUE value/price of militaria; because this is but one example of how much for I pay for militaria on an regular basis!

    As you well know; militaria is every where, and in GREAT great (over) abundance. This is NOT a surprise to those of us that have collected in this particular HOBBY for 30 or more years; the problem is the dangerous mix of new money and (some of the) OLD dealers, as you so aptly put it in your summation! OLD dealers (not all dealers) know that the NEW speculators are NOT true hobbyist, but are instead people in need of that quick fix for some reason other than the true love of the hobby! This mix comes with a VERY high price as you have well observed, but this hard earned wisdom will not change the market, because that is what you are really talking about; THE MARKET.

    THE HOBBY; on the other hand will live on forever independent and separate from the market; because the two have very little to do with each other! True hobbyist of ANY ilk are a passionate bunch that value their time, knowledge, love, and MONEY; too much to let the need of others to pay bills, get in the way.
    John (Cpl. Blair USMC 1977-81)

  2. Aaron Buda on said:

    Mr. Adams-Graf,

    I emailed you a couple months ago about my views on younger collectors in the hobby of militaria after reading one of your JAG files, and after just recently reading your JAG file on the state of the hobby, I was compelled to email you again with my thoughts.

    Being that you had said collecting may be suffering because of people in finacial situations and high prices of militaria, I just want to let you know that were I’m at things seem to be doing just fine. Being a 17 year old with a monthly income of approx. $125 (most of which is for militaria) I and my brother seem to get plenty of items every other weekend for fairly cheap prices. We mainly collect Vietnam War era items but also anything else if we can get it for cheap. We get a lot of regular stuff (field gear and uniforms) but also we find a lot of great deals on quality items as well (such as a WWII paramarine M55 Reising submachine gun carry case for $5 which we ended up selling for $200, and a Vietnam era Lightweight rucksack and a tropical rucksack for $25 a piece). The area I live in has a lot of antique stores and three military collectibles stores, so I would say we have plenty of resources, but the thing that really gets me is that people, particulary antique stores, sell militaria for such large prices that the seller is probably going to pass on before they sell anything. This seems to be a recurring problem in the hobby, and I highly dislike it. I try my best to talk people down in prices and trade so I can get items for as cheap as possible, but when certain people hold militaria hostage by having it priced so high, it just really bugs me. I think that is a possible reason the hobby may be suffering, because people have things for so expensive, but at the same time there are a lot of great deals, you just have to look for them. One crazy story is that I got talking to a Wehrmacht reenactor who was in the Navy right after Vietnam and he was telling me how he got into Vietnam reenacting for a short time and bought civilian made copies of sateens for like $30 and a civilian made M-65 for like $60 (these were not even good reproductions). I can’t believe that, for I could get real sateens and jackets from the sixties for like $5.

    I love collecting militaria because I believe every piece is a piece of history and tells a story about brave men defending their country. A few times I have been asked: Why do I mainly collect items from the Vietnam War? I find this sometimes a hard question to answer, as it is mostly asked by veterans of that era or people who have lived through it. My answer is that for one thing in my area it is a lot easier to find than WWI or WWII or Korean War items and it is often cheaper than other items as well. I also think the uniforms and field gear are cool as well. Also on another point you had said that you think online forums may be declining, that may be true but the one I belong to (US Militaria Forum) is pretty good with a lot of good folks that know a lot about militaria.

    Thanks for reading my email and thanks for the great work in Military Trader. It’s a great magazine. I hope to hear back from you on maybe your opinion on some of the things I have presented. Thanks again.

  3. Greetings & Salutations! 35 years ago when I did sell at insignia shows, charged only 10% more than what I paid for the insignia and uniforms, yet was asked to lower the price. Sometimes I sold at what I paid for something for a neophyte collector. Sometimes I donated stuff to younger folks entertaining the hobby. I enjoyed the shows and making money was really not all that important. Some of the dealers would attempt to buy me out so I would not cause prospective buyers from expecting them from asking lower prices? Have not been to a show for over 10 years as a vistor, but was surprised some dealers would say a seller on eBay gets such-and-such a price, failing to mention eBay takes their share of the sales of the eBay sellers. I suspect all that chanaged are the names and faces, as for inflation and recession, we had those before, didn’t we? I do not think the hobby will die out what with new Middle East insignia to be on the market? I enjoyed the articler and found it so true, thanks, John! Respectfully yours, Sarge Booker of Tujunga

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