From the time immediately following WWII until the last few years, the nature of military collecting has followed a generalized path. Collectors gathered whatever they encountered—if the price was “right.” During the last decade, that style of collecting has given way, as a new generation becomes the driving force of the hobby.
“If it’s green, I collect it”
Following WWII when military collecting emerged as a popular hobby right alongside stamp, coin and gun collecting, the first wave of militaria enthusiasts practiced the “vacuum” approach. They raced each other to antique fairs, flea markets, estate sales and farm auctions to be the first in line. Once inside, their collecting philosophy followed the line of “If it’s military and cheap, I will buy it.”
These early pickers were important in establishing the foundation of our hobby. They gathered and gathered. Those who weren’t full-blown hoarders, decided to mark up some of the stuff they found and began dealing. By the 1950s, small groups of like-minded individuals broke away from the gun and antique show circuit to begin organizing exclusive military shows.
For decades, pickers continued to scour the flea markets, antique shops and sales, vacuuming up any militaria they could find… and it was cheap. They spent hours upon hours, searching for the next score. From their efforts of discovering pieces “in the wild,” other collectors were able to pick and choose to assemble serious collections of Civil War, WWI and WWII relics.
Those people, though, who chose a collecting specialty, were few and far between. And even those who did, gave their collections very broad parameters such as “Third Reich,” “Civil War” or “Imperial German.” Though they consciously set a border on their collecting efforts, the boundaries were just too far-reaching to ever really focus on a collection that could tell a story (other than, “look at all the stuff I have”).
In retrospect, it is understandable why these types of collectors dominated the hobby. The supply of items from the gatherers was very high, and prices were relatively low. The need to limit one’s collecting efforts was not real pressing, so vast “general” collections developed.
A Change in the Way We Collect
A trend I have witnessed in our hobby (as well as most other antique or relic-based collectibles) has been that of serious collectors steering away from general collections of random gatherings and focusing their efforts on tight, collections with narrow themes and parameters. This new breed of collector places the emphasis on telling a complete story like “U.S. Army Aluminum Canteens,” “Bantam’s WWII Jeeps” or “Union Army Cavalry Carbines.” They scan many offerings looking for missing elements of the story, rather than just randomly searching antique stores or flea markets for something “military.”
Of course, there are still those who re-pan the slag heaps of antique malls, flea markets and estate sales (and a few, quite successfully), but the nuggets they find are fast becoming far and few between. One only has to log onto any major collecting forums to witness the flurry of “how’d I do?” posts that turn out to be illustrated with run-of-the-mill, black-capped canteens, OD-7 web belts or handfuls of merrow-edged patches. Don’t be misled by the amount of chatter on Internet forums about this sort of pick-and-show. It is just one aspect of the hobby. These gatherers still perform a valuable service to the hobby. They are the guys “down in the mine” still ferreting out the occasional goodies. But the “gold rush” is over… these gatherers are kind of like the grizzled old miner tugging a mule to work over his claim “one more time.” They might strike a vein of serious relics like a case of WWI Pershing shoes or a barnyard full of Stuart tanks, but it isn’t likely.
Meanwhile, back in the daylight of commerce, the real action has turned from looking for that “vein of relics” to selling the relics that are already in the market. Other than all those relics that spilled onto the market after WWII, there hasn’t been a better time for collecting than right now.
Enter the “Specialists”
During the last 10-15 years, the militaria and historic military vehicle trends have been towards “specialization.” Many collectors have concluded their time and efforts are better spent developing a collection rather than pounding the antique store circuit or flea markets in the hope of finding a treasure. In order to develop a collection beyond a random gathering of what they stumbled onto at a flea market or antique shop, these specialists realized they had to employ a different collecting method. Rather than randomly hunting, the new path to focused is based on three things: networking, networking and networking.
It so happens, now is a perfect time for this switch in methodology. Those huge hoards of material the first generation assembled are now coming to market as people retire or pass away. The material appears like a tsunami—it might be quiet for weeks or months and then wham! A new collection emerges for sale on a dealer’s list or show table. Prices have reached near retail or higher levels, so the collector is forced to pick and choose. This has forced the collector to specialize.
And from this specialization, serious new leaps and bounds have occurred in the understanding of military relics. Whereas a collection in the past might have a couple of Iron Crosses, specialized collectors now have dozens, if not hundreds. They are able to study marks, manufacturing techniques and extrapolate many details that can only be learned through studying many examples side by side.
Probably the first to queue up in the “specialization line” were the British medal collectors. Faced with such an overwhelming selection of medals that were named to the recipients, very few collectors could afford to buy everything they encountered. Over the years, specialization has taken many paths, from the obvious of unit affiliation and combat record to more complex themes revolving around the types of medal or the family name associated with them.
Even in our historic military vehicle (HMV) hobby, rising prices have forced all but the wealthiest to pick and choose what they will include in their stable. Specialized collections of VC Dodges, M37s, WWII Jeeps and even half-tracks and amphibians have emerged. For many, the specialization is limited to just one or two vehicles, but that landscape is changing. In a recent conversation with a prominent dealer, he noted that sales to first-time or one-vehicle owners are way down during this economic downturn. On the other hand, those who can afford multiple vehicle collections are taking advantage of the slow-down to develop specialized collections with depth. Number of vehicles isn’t the prestige marker anymore—rather, it’s the depth of the story a collection of vehicles can tell. Some specialized collections that I have witnessed include prototype Jeeps, engineering vehicles, M37 variants, CCKW variants, Weasel variants and armor.
If you are serious about collecting militaria or HMVs, now is the time to buy. Because of the reality of attrition among aging collectors combined with a slow economy, some of the best material is coming up for sale—much of it offered to the collecting community for the first time ever.
The key, though, to assembling a valuable collection with meaningful depth, is not spending your time looking for those last few nuggets out in the wild (unless that is what is the thrill for you), but rather, network, network and network. Sign up for dealers’ web site updates, go to shows, subscribe to auction catalogs, participate on forums and let people know what it is you collect. Someone isn’t probably going to contact you if you say, “I specialize in WWII memorabilia,” because that is too broad. But, tell them you are an aggressive buyer of paratrooper helmets or SA daggers in No. 1 condition, and the dealers will recognize that you aren’t just a casual, “buy-what’s-cheap gather,” but rather, a serious, knowledgeable customer. You are much more likely to receive that call or email that begins with, “I have something you might want to add to your collection…”
Forget the Quantity, Pursue the Quality,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine