We are all in this together. In an effort to report on the state of different facets of the military collectibles market, Military Trader strives to discover and share the opinions of the hobby’s leading dealers and collectors. This month, we had the privilege to talk with Bill Shea. Most will recognize his business, The Ruptured Duck, as one of the leading businesses dealing in WWII relics and specializing in Third Reich memorabilia.
Bill has been a collector of militaria since 1959 and a world-class militaria dealer since the late 1960’s when he began attending gun shows and publishing printed catalogues. His profession as a history teacher and passion for interacting with veterans since being a young boy has given him the opportunity to gain a real perspective on the stories behind the artifacts. He also currently works with two auction houses and consults with a number of museums. Items from his collection have appeared in more than 50 references on WWII memorabilia. In fact, Bill is in the process of writing his own book, entitled, The Stories Behind the Treasures of World War II: The Making of a “Collectorholic”, which he hopes will be published by 2016.
Bill currently has a staff of five which includes his wife, Donna, his son, Patrick, his daughter, Kellianne, and his granddaughter, Elycia. He calls it a “real family affair!”
Bill and his family also have a real passion for classic automobiles and motorcycles. His collection includes three Steve McQueen motorcycles and several DeLoreans.
Though Bill offers a wide range of military relics, he is best-known for his expertise on WWII militaria. With more than 50 years experience in buying, selling, trading and collecting, he has a very good sense of the ebbs and flows of the hobby. We are pleased to offer his response to our “10 Questions on the Health of the Third Reich Market.”
Military Trader: Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with us. Let’s start off by paraphrasing a question we hear the most in our office: “With so many fakes in the Third Reich arena so readily available, how would you advise a new collector to approach this facet of militaria collecting?”
Bill Shea: Here are a few of my recommendations/suggestions: Knowledge is power. Learn as much as you can by interacting with knowledgeable collectors and dealers. The internet has a treasure trove of information with websites, forums, chat rooms etc. Collecting information, details and facts gives a person a good foundation and provides the pleasure of learning. Adopt a dealer or two early on along with a few advanced collectors. Honest dealers and sincere collectors are more than happy to provide novice collectors with sound information. I’ve often said that the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.
Many new collectors start out by making costly mistakes. By the time they find an honest dealer, they may have a fistful of reproductions. When you tell them the truth, you get that look of frustration and anger. Many new collectors end up getting out of collecting, and that is not good for the future of the hobby. So my advice is to insist on a money back lifetime written guarantee for every item you purchase. If the seller balks at this, then walk away from the deal.
Military Trader: How would you characterize a “typical” Third Reich collector today? How has that person’s collecting habits changed in the last thirty years?
Bill Shea: LOL… My customer base runs the total gamut. Occupations I deal with include blue collar workers to state supreme court judges. Collectors include Baptist ministers to Jewish lawyers. They all have one thing in common running through their veins. It’s a love of history and a keen eye for the military regalia of years gone by.
Collecting habits over the past three decades have been greatly influenced by the explosion of the world wide web. In the old days, gun/militaria shows along with dealer catalogues and news letters such as “Shotgun News” were the primary public sources for militaria. Telephone calls and letters have been replaced by email and texts.
It’s fantastic that we can now interact with collectors throughout the world with a few strokes on the keyboard. This provides a great opportunity to gather information and check out items with collector friends in minutes rather than weeks.
Military Trader: Helmets, caps, daggers, medals, flags, uniforms—there is so much variety under the umbrella of “Third Reich.” What advice would you give a new collector when faced with a nearly unlimited variety of choices?
Bill Shea: Honestly, collect what you like. New collectors usually start out by buying anything that has a swastika. The bigger the better and they start out with an accumulation. After a while, they find a niche, something that really appeals to them and their budget. Then, they purchase the reference books and find the forum on that specific area. They find out what it takes and have fun gathering the common, then the scarce, and eventually, try to advance to the rarer items within that genre or field of militaria .
Military Trader: How would you explain the apparent growth of interest in Third Reich organizations whose primary roles were not as combat units, such as the NSKK, SA, Red Cross, etc.?
Bill Shea: Once again, knowledge is power. The availability of comprehensive accurate information with the introduction of excellent source material in these areas has led to the increase of interest in these areas. Cost is another reason. These para-military organization’s regalia can sometimes be less expensive.
Military Trader: What areas of Third Reich collecting have you witnessed grow but then then subside in the last twenty years?
Bill Shea: As a dealer, I would have to say that Third Reich edged weapons seen to have lost their momentum in the past five years. That’s too bad, because there are so many excellent reference books and on-line information.
Several daggers that were considered rare in the past are now more available. Part of this may be due to the surge in value that caused a lot of old hardened collectors to sell select examples from their personal collections because they were made offers they couldn’t refuse. Now there is more of a supply that has not kept up with the demand.
Military Trader: What areas of Third Reich collecting are particularly “hot” today?
Bill Shea: Several areas are very strong. Helmets are incredibly hot. I have owned well over 25,000 German World War I and II helmets over the past 50 years (many, more than once). Properly and accurately described, priced and photographed, they still fly off the shelves.
Other headgear, uniforms and medals are also selling very well. Several Third Reich collectibles are still priced where new collectors with modest budgets can still get into the hobby. There are 100’s of different items such as cloth eagles, buckles, and tinnies that can be purchased for under $100.
Military Trader: Our readers love stories about collectors’ “Favorite Finds.” Tell us about what you consider one of your favorite finds during the past 30 years.
Bill Shea: I have been extremely fortunate to have uncovered many rare and exotic souvenirs over the past six decades. Hundreds of these stories will appear in my upcoming book. I’ve selected one to share with your readers. It’s called, “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN…Treasure Trove of Adolf Hitler Silverware Right Out Of His Kitchen.”
Some collectors say “don’t buy the story, buy the item!” Well I, for one, have never believed in that philosophy. I guess a lot of that depends on who is telling you the story.
Well, these details are directly from the mouth and the written word of a P.F.C. (name withheld at his request) from Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. These details were gathered both from a letter he wrote, and a face-to-face conversation he had with a good friend of mine in 2006.
And boy did he have a story to tell. He related that he, like most of the boys in his Queens N.Y. neighborhood, entered the service in March of 1943 when he turned 18. He first went to the armor corps at Fort Polk as part of the 8th Armor Division. He then entered training with the Army Air Corps as a pilot, but this program was cut short. He then volunteered for the paratroopers and trained at Fort Benning in Georgia.
In December 1944, he was assigned to the 101st Division in France. They were quickly whisked off to Belgium and attached to the 506th. This is where he encountered Colonel Sink who was standing on a jeep with a frozen dead German soldier at his feet. He proceeded to tell all these replacements that it was their job to hold the town of Bastogne at all costs. Shortly before Christmas, 1944 he was assigned to “C” company.
Having survived that historical event, he was then speeding through the Rhineland to Bavaria without opposition in April 1945. When they reached Berchtesgaden and the Berghof area, he said they could see this stone structure on the top of a near-by snow covered mountain. He related how one of the sergeants asked for four volunteers to go to the top and secure the building. He said “My hand shot up because by then I knew it was Hitler’s Eagles Nest.”
The elevator was not working so it was no easy task. However, what waited for them was worth the work. When they arrived, then encountered a few drunk French soldiers, but otherwise, had the place to themselves. He said, and I quote, “Once inside we began to search for valuables. Tapping on the paneled walls in the huge dining room, we found one place that had a different sound. A small strip of molding was moved to reveal a lock. Having found a ring of keys in the basement, we finally opened a wall safe containing fourteen trays of Hitler’s silverware. Since each piece had the Nazi insignia on it, this qualified our find as ‘legal war booty’.”
Having been to the Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest was the name given to this location by the soldiers) on two occasions, I can picture the exact area he was talking about. I believe we might refer to it as a butler’s pantry where dishes, pots and pans would be stored. However, the good stuff would be under lock and key only to be brought out for formal occasions. I can picture these GIs remembering the movies from the 1930s with all the secret compartments, hidden rooms, and revolving walls. Pretty exciting stuff considering you have just survived months of fighting!
He went on to say, and again, I quote, “All the trays were placed on the large dining room table. The sergeant made five piles of silverware pieces until everyone agreed they were as equal as possible. Then we each chose a pile that we carried around until we were able to mail it home after officer inspection.”
Each pile contained over 100 pieces of the formal A.H. silverware. What an incredible haul. It’s even more amazing that everything made it home knowing that there were a lot of “sticky fingers” in between leaving the parcels off at the APO and it arriving home safe and sound to Queens, N.Y.
This proud member of “The Greatest Generation” held onto these trophies for 60 years until a greater calling occurred. A friend of mine from Pennsylvania had established contact with him but was never able to convince him to sell these treasures.
However, fate intervened. This hero is a religious man and the church he attended needed funding to erect a steeple and a new cross. It was at this moment that he realized he could use these souvenirs for a very good purpose. In fact, when he decided to sell these items to Mike, he initially insisted that the proceeds go directly to the pastor at the church as he did not want to handle the money. The result of all of this is that the church was able to erect the steeple and purchase a beautiful cross for the congregation.
When Mike contacted me I was speechless. All he had to tell me was the story, and the fact that along with the silverware came a photo album with many pictures of the paratrooper and his buddies. Some of these images show our hero right at the Eagle’s Nest and others show his buddies horsing around, one being dressed in an SS uniform and another wrapped in a German party banner. At this point it was all over for me because the veteran’s story combined with the pictures and, oh, by the way, over 100 pieces of some very rare and unusual items such as cigar cutters, fruit knives, grape snippers, sugar tongs, etc.
I had to have this grouping because it would be a lot of fun to handle and market. Many collections around the world today now have a piece or two of the silverware from this haul.
Military Trader: We all have our a story about the “one that got away.” Tell us about the one item that slipped through your fingers and can still keep you awake at night.
Bill Shea: It’s a treasure trove of extremely rare medals and badges that was taken from a castle in Austria called Schloss Klessheim. This was where the Germans had stored cases of rare decorations including Knight’s Crosses, Eagle Orders, German Crosses with diamonds etc. The list goes on and on. There was enough stuff there to last a thousand years. US soldiers stumbled on this place. They thought they had found “The Crown Jewels.”
At a gun show in the early 1980’s, one veteran showed me an old picture of a wall display he had in his basement. It had every conceivable German decoration you could think of. Below the display were stacks of the cases these awards came in. He was very nonchalant and told me he wasn’t ready to sell but was just “checking things out.” He wouldn’t give me his name or phone number but took my business card and told me he would get in touch. I’m still waiting for the phone to ring with this special call.
Military Trader: Every deeply involved collector has a “white whale”—that one item that drives you to keep digging, searching, and involved. What would you consider to be the one elusive item that keeps you looking in closets, under beds, or deep into private collections hoping to, one day, be able to add to your collection?
Bill Shea: Mine is not so much about that elusive item, it’s more about pinpointing exactly where it hung. I have a 40 pound huge bronze eagle that is absolutely totally documented to have been over “one” of the doors in the Führerbau in Munich. It was sent home by one of the “Monuments Men” and came with a letter describing in detail the exact room which he called “the radio room where Hitler gave all his early speeches.”
I am positive it’s the conference room that has the painting of Frederick The Great over the fireplace. I have found many pictures of that room and you can clearly see one door with this handsome eagle above the frame. That is exactly what my eagle looks like, except the eagle’s head is facing the opposite direction. Having studied pictures of that building from the exterior, you can clearly see there is a massive eagle over the portico of each of the two entrances.
Looking closely, you can also see that their heads face in opposite directions. I am convinced that the same existed for the interior doors. This was a huge conference room and I know for a fact it had two entrances. I have even found pictures taken from different angles and you can see part of that second door but not the top. Wouldn’t it be fantastic, if one of Military Trader’s readers could help me solve this mystery!
Military Trader: And finally, the question we all want to ask the experienced veteran collectors, such as yourself, “How will Third Reich collecting change over the next ten years?”
Bill Shea: I do believe the internet will continue to play a vital role in spreading the word and keeping collectors informed and networked. Periodicals like Military Trader still serve an important purpose to those of us who still enjoy having something in hand. The feel of turning those pages and having something to read on the “throne” still works.
I have two main concerns about the future. One is the age of my customer base. I believe the average age of my customers is 60. Many are over 70 and few are under 30. If this trend continues and we can’t attract younger people, the future of the hobby is not bright. Certainly, there are more people getting out of the hobby than are getting in. That’s why whenever I have the opportunity to interact with younger customers, I try my best to spend as much time as I can with them. I don’t care if they are buying or not. I sincerely enjoy answering their questions and trying to stimulate their interest in history. It must be the teacher in me even after all these years.
The second big issue is the fakes. There is a definite correlation between the quality of the fakes and price. The more expensive the item, the more effort the bad guys will use to clone the item. Remember some of the points I made earlier in this interview and take them to heart…Knowledge is power and seek out the good guys.
We are honored to interview and report on prominent players in our hobby. To learn more about Bill Shea’s business, The Ruptured Duck, or more importantly, to view his current offerings, log onto www.therupturedduck.com, or contact Bill by writing, The Ruptured Duck, 51 Morgan Road, Hubbardston, MA 01452 or calling (978) 928-4495.