Who’s holding the magic wand?

A person carrying a large paper bag recently knocked on my office door. After greeting each other, he told me how he had inherited some military items from an uncle and wanted to know if they were real, and if so, what the items might be worth. Having just wrapped up an issue of Military Trader, I had the time to invite him in. What he was carrying in his paper bag turned out to be a tantalizing—and frustrating—surprise for both of us.

A few weeks prior to the unexpected visitor’s appearance at my office, a local newspaper featured a short article had about my business activities. Though it emphasized my writing and publishing efforts, the accompanying photographs did reveal that I work amid various displays of uniforms, historic photos and various military relics. Without coming out and saying it, the article implied that I had a significant background in collecting military relics. Obviously, my visitor had read the article and not having any other idea where to find the answers about his inherited relics, thought that I might be able to provide them.

After my guest looked at a few of the displays of WWI AEF Tank Corps material surrounding my work station, he began to explain how he acquired the items in his yet-to-be-opened sack. As a child, he had played with souvenirs his uncle had brought home from Germany. Apparently, his uncle served in a unit that moved through southern Germany into Austria. It was during the final days of the war when he began gathering souvenirs.

As my guest spoke, he unrolled the top of the brown paper bag. Without the care that you or I might provide to a valuable relic, he nonchalantly pulled a helmet from the sack. Immediately, without even shifting my head or the expression on my face, I recognized that it was no ordinary German helmet, but rather, an M35 combat helmet with, not only SS ruins on one side but a red shield and black swastika on the other. As sure as I was standing there, an honest-to-goodness “double decal SS helmet” had just entered my office.

Okay, at that point, years of collecting chagrin kicked all the safety stops in my brain. Before getting too excited, I needed to explore the provenance a little deeper.

 

PROVENANCE IS EVERYTHING

A stranger just carried a double decal SS helmet into my office. Now, I have been collecting for many years (professionally, for more than 30!), and this was the first time such a rare helmet just randomly appeared before me. That, in itself, struck one of the alarms in my brain: If it is too good to be true, be darn suspicious!

Taking hold of the rarity, it didn’t take long to do a visual, quantitative evaluation: The liner was original and retained the rivet washer; the chinstrap was dated 1938; the crown had a partial ink acceptance stamp and the brim was stamped “Q-66.” Furthermore, the decals were thin and applied to almost appear to be one with the paint below.

Looking at the helmet, I asked a few probing questions. “Your uncle gave this to you?” No, he hadn’t given it to the visitor, rather, it was among his uncle’s belongings when he had died. “Did you play with this helmet when you were a kid?”  No, he hadn’t played with this one, but another helmet that he thought was “just like it.”  “When did you first see this helmet?” My guest had first seen this helmet when he inherited it. The provenance was getting sketchy.

I wanted to believe the helmet was real. I really wanted to believe, but I have learned a rather harsh lesson in our hobby: A rare item is only as good as the popular consensus.

 

MONET AND THE MAGIC WAND

I am sure many of you have experienced the “magic wand” effect in our hobby. The magic wand comes out when someone tries to sell a high-end relic only to be met with the question, “Did _____ (fill in with expert’s name) see this?” Apparently, after a relic passes a certain value plateau, authenticity is determined by different experts who bless it with a mythical wand.

This is a harsh reality of our hobby. Rather than each of us becoming an expert on a variety of areas, we rely on friends and other collectors for confirmation of items outside our areas of expertise. This method has served the hobby rather well, though, of course, mistakes are made. I never really gave it much thought until the other day until I watched an interesting show on Public Television.

“Fake or Fortune?” first broadcast a show back in 2011 that examined a painting, supposedly rendered by the premier Impressionist artist, Claude Monet. The current owner purchased “Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil” for a fraction of its estimated value when the painting failed to sell at auction. The owner, was no slouch—a published art historian, he was making the purchase on more than a hunch. He recognized Monet’s style and believed the painting was, indeed, created by the Master.

The problem was, however, the provenance. You see, in this small segment of the art world, there is a long-recognized authority that endorses authentic Monet paintings. The Wildenstein Institute in Paris publishes the catalogue raisonné of Monet paintings. Not to be included in the catalog means a work will not be accepted as a legitimate Monet painting by auction houses or buyers.

Years earlier, the founder of the Institute, Daniel Wildenstein, had declared the painting as a fake, though he had only seen a photographic copy of the painting in Monet’s obituary. Regardless of the cursory inspection, Wildenstein had waved his magic wand, declaring the painting as not authentic His pronouncement was final, and the art world listened. There was nothing the owner could do—that is, until “Fake or Fortune” took up his case.

The show approached the Art Access Research Centre in Paris, where they scanned the painting using high resolution, infrared and X-ray photography. At the Lumiere Technology Centre the picture was scanned using a 240-megapixel camera and 13 different light filters. The resulting image was examined by Iris Schaefer, the head of Conservation at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, who has previously uncovered a fake Monet that had been accepted by the Wildenstein Institute. She declared the painting genuine. Dr Nicholas Eastaugh of the Courtauld Insitute of Art performed chemical analysis of paints used in the painting and the signature. He concluded they conformed precisely with Monet’s palette and the mediums the artist used in 1873.

Other experts concluded the brushwork and signature were by Monet. Not stopping there, the program investigated the provenance of the painting. They were able to establish a chain of custody beginning in 1881 when Monet gave the painting to Dr. Charles Porak in lieu of medical fees.

With all of that concrete evidence, it would seem pretty obvious, the painting was, indeed, an original Monet creation. The show made an appointment with the Wildenstein Institute to present their case, confident they would receive the much-needed endorsement of the experts.

Quite shockingly, and regardless of the evidence the show was prepared to exhibit, the Wildenstein Institute refused to accept any of it. In a very brief meeting, they indicated they continued to regard the painting as a fake, a decision based predominantly on the connoisseurship of the Institute’s late founder, Daniel Wildenstein. End of discussion. They were not going to wave the magic wand of authenticity. The current owner is left with a beautiful painting that he and the majority of the art history world accepts as an authentic Monet-produced work, but that he cannot sell.

 

WHO HOLDS THE MILITARIA WAND?

We have all seen the same scenario played out countless times within our hobby. A person might have a dagger, medal group or even an SS helmet that they (rightly so) believe to be authentic, but because the “expert” hasn’t endorsed it, the items can’t achieve their monetary potential.

This might not be fair, it might not be right, but it is a reality of the hobby. You might walk into a show with an absolutely impeccable SS panzer wrap-around that you know came out of a Panzerkampfwagen V in Austria in 1945, but it is no good until the right expert has examined it. You better hope that expert has a good breakfast, hasn’t been fighting with his wife the night before or just got stung on a visor cap he bought earlier that day. Unfortunately, even more innocuous factors can influence an expert’s willingness to make the magic wand pronouncement: His feet might hurt, the PA system is annoying, or someone is looking over his shoulder.  The fact is, you—and the value of your relic—are at his mercy at that moment. Is this what we expect of our hobby?

 

STEPS TO HOLSTER THE MAGIC WAND

The era of the magic wand is fast fading… the Internet has provided access to research possibilities that negate the old notion that one person holds all clues to authenticity. There have been efforts within both the historic military vehicle (HMV) and militaria hobbies to quantify relics based on more than a single person’s instincts.

Within the HMV hobby, the Military Vehicle Preservation Association (MVPA) has established a list of criteria a vehicle must have to be classified as “historic restoration.” This doesn’t, however, establish authenticity. Rather, it determines whether a restoration is true to the original production of a particular vehicle. The criteria, though, certainly diffuses the chin-scratchers who walk up and declare, “I don’t think that is ‘right’.”

Thanks to the organizers of the MAX Show, a knowledgeable board of reviewers is available to examine and certify Third Reich relics. Obtaining MAX-certification of a high-end Third Reich relic is a crucial step in determining authenticity. It is, however, susceptible to non-scientific interpretations, hopefully not as egregious as demonstrated by the Wildenstein Institute in regard to the Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil painting!

Even though MAX-Certification is available, our hobby is a long way from providing a policing body to protect the buying and selling of fraudulent material. Sales are still characterized by comments such as, “Did ____ see this?” and “I know it is good… I got it from the veteran.”

Advances in affordable infrared, X-ray and microscopic photography, chemical analysis and archival research, however, will change the way we do business. In the next 20 or 30 years, we will be hearing a whole lot less of “He said it was good!” and more of, “Let me show you the lab’s determination.”

And what about that SS double decal helmet that wandered into my office? Well, we are waiting for our expert to take a look at it and let us know what he thinks. Before he takes out his magic wand of authenticity, I hope his wife has been nice to him, his feet don’t hurt and that he has had a good breakfast!

Preserve the Provenance,

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

 

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