The Devil is in the Details

“The person who defines their own qualities by quoting someone else does just that.”

It seems like everyone is quoting someone these days. I am normally not a big fan of quotes, but I do keep one on my desk that guides my collecting, writing and magazine production.

“A good article takes what is important and makes it interesting. It does not take what is interesting and make it seem important.”

I don’t remember the name of the college professor who made this comment to me. Regardless, the battered note card with his quote has been taped to a long string of my computer monitors and work stations that spans more than 30 years of collecting and writing. His simple statement has had a big impact on me.

I doubt, however, the English professor had even considered collectors. Collecting of any historic artifact often revolves on nuances and variations. “Variant collecting” is a very substantial part of our hobby. I wonder, though, if variant collectors risk becoming lost in their hunt of details.

13-Star Buttons, Swivel Loops and F-Marks

During the course of the day, I probably frequent three or four different collecting forums on the Internet. So much of the chatter on these—whether they are discussing Jeeps, helmet liners, Third Reich medals or Civil War firearms—seems to focus on minutia. In the model tank building world, for example, these detail-oriented folks are sometimes called “rivet counters.” In the European train world, they are referred to as “anoraks” (a nod to the characteristic parkas train watchers tend to wear when standing on the edge of the platform awaiting the arrival of the next locomotive). In teenage parlance, the term “basement dweller” seems to be the most common—if not unkind—description.

Generally, detail hounds are sometimes regarded with a raised eyebrow. The truth of the matter is, we owe the health of the hobby to the people who collect all the variants of whatever piques their interest. Often, this is how we determine what is “rare” or “common.” From the detail hounds’ efforts, dealers and other collectors are able to determine pricing.

The risk of this form of collecting, though, is becoming lost in the details. Knowing when smooth-faced buttons replaced those with 13 stars on herringbone twill fatigue uniforms helps to date the garments. Likewise, the difference in value between a “fixed loop” M1 helmet and one with swiveling loops is a crucial bit of information for any helmet collector. Historic military vehicle collectors have known that parts marked with Ford’s script “F” tend to be more desirable than similar unmarked parts.  But the study of details can bog down a person’s appreciation of history.

Rivet counters might be able to determine whether a model kit is an accurate representation of the real vehicle, but that kind of knowledge doesn’t really further the understanding of the vehicle’s role in history. Similarly, knowing whether one Bakelite grip on a P38 pistol was made by Walther, AEG or Durofol doesn’t really impart anything about the significance of the pistol’s role in the Third Reich.

Dealers and auction houses use “busy data” to imply some sort of special meaning or significance—and therefore, desirability—to a prospective buyer. Probably the most flagrant employment of “busy data” can be found—you guessed it—on eBay.

For an example of “busy data,” take a look at the listings of U.S. and British WWI helmets. You will discover many listings that have elaborate explanations of the markings found on the underside of the brim at the rear of the helmet. Most collectors know that these are simple “heat markings” that have no bearing or correlation to the use of the helmet. There are no rolls of “heat markings” of 1917 or lists of issue. These stampings are not going to lead one to the identity of the soldier(s) who wore the particular helmet. They are meaningless to the military history of the headgear. And yet, dealers just can’t resist commenting and duplicating this info as if doing so somehow legitimizes the piece. It’s just “busy data,” nothing more. Like my old professor said, they are taking “what is interesting and making it seem important.”

Through my many different collecting careers, I have fallen into this trap. As a kid collecting U.S. stamps, I did my share of counting the number of perforations on the edge of some great issues without ever considering the significance of the image on the stamps (heck, I soaked them off the envelopes that would have imparted meaningful info about the persons who purchased and used the stamps!). When I raced slot cars, it was more important to me to have every manufacturer’s variation of their Porsche 904 than it was to understand the men who raced the real cars, the design that made it such a winner in 1964 or the impact the car had on the future of sports car design. All I cared about is that I had the silver one, the red one and the black one.

Collecting fulfills different desires for everyone. It is presumptuous to think that everyone is concerned about the history of an item and the impact on society it might represent. Heck, I am sitting in my new office with a row of torsos displaying WWI Tank Corps uniforms in front of desk. Having more than one doesn’t teach me anything more about the Tank Corps, but as a collector, I take great satisfaction in seeing a row of most anything! It has only been in the last 15 years when I became more interested in the men who wore the uniforms or used the equipment I collect.

Today, each item in my collection serves as a conduit to the story of soldiers who relied on the piece during their service. I still struggle, though, with the desire to just “buy one of everything”—after all, that desire to form rows of like objects is very strong in all of us collectors!

Know the variants. Appreciate the history,

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

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2 thoughts on “The Devil is in the Details

  1. The quote that’s been stuck to my computer for years is attributed to H.G. Welles: "There is no passion, no love or hate, as powerful as the desire to change someone else’s draft." That has prevented some serious confrontations over the years.

    But, to your point on "busy data", let me add another perspective. What’s "busy data" to some is critical information to another. I have a customer who called me each time I sent out a catalog and asked very specific questions about a category of medals. The information he wanted was easy enough to provide, but it wasn’t critical to me as a cataloger (i.e., it would have no effect on my buying decisions). It took three or four of these calls (and a check of his buying record) for the light bulb to go on, and thereafter I included the data in each of the appropriate lot descriptions. He was clearly basing his buying decision on that information, so it was to my benefit to include it. It may be "busy data" to 99.9% of the catalog readers, but it’s "buying data" to that 0.1%.

  2. John A-G on said:

    VERY good point, Jeff! You are so right…I have card files full of information that another researcher would consider "busy data," but I can see your point–it is crucial stuff–to ME!

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. Point very well taken.
    John A-G

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