Militaria Mindset: MT talks with Stephen Previtera

German flea market find leads to lifetime endeavor

May 21, 2010

Story by Andrew L. Turner, Photo by Jeff Glötzl

Stephen Previtera traveled to Europe for the first time in 1983. While visiting a friend in Germany he explored numerous outdoor flea markets, and on one such occasion a rusty German helmet caught his eye. “The gentleman also had a vaulted 1939 Iron Cross First Class sitting on an old table among teapots and artificial flowers,” said Previtera. “I could not believe what I was seeing, I had no idea such items could be obtained so long after the war.” Previtera purchased the WWII German decoration and embarked on what would become the endeavor of his lifetime.

A couple of weeks later, he bought a 1939 Iron Cross, Second Class, and was determined to find out if what he had was the “real deal” or a souvenir trinket. “I guess you could say these were my first steps into the world of German militaria,” he said. “They triggered my interest in collecting as well as researching the artifacts.” Previtera has advanced to establish a publishing house dedicated to intensive militaria research, Winidore Press, and is the author of four books related to German military decorations: Prussian Blue: A History of the Order Pour le Merite; The Iron Time: A History of the Iron Cross; Combat Badges of the Third Reich: Vol. II Luftwaffe; and Flight Clasps of the Luftwaffe. Those first two Iron Crosses remain in his collection today.

While emotion undoubtedly played a part in his first finds, Previtera has grown to learn sentiment must not dictate his purchases. “As enthusiasts, we get excited by the hunt,” he said. “No question, I am bitten by the same bug as any collector – but I study my quarry. I am careful to ask those I respect for insight if I am entering into a new arena. Then I engage my brain, focus on what I have learned and carefully sift through the evidence before me.”

He reads respected reference books, studies reputable auction catalogs and sales sites, and looks for patterns related to manufacturers. “That is why the images in my books are so detailed and triangulated. See the detail and crack the code,” he said. “Then it becomes like reading hieroglyphics. It makes sense because you see the patterns.”

Previtera sees the artifacts as a link to history. He is fortunate to have visited with many highly decorated veterans. About U-Boat Ace Erich Topp, “What a gentleman,” he remembered. The two had plans to dine at Topp’s favorite restaurant, but it had closed early. They returned to Topp’s home and Previtera’s laptop computer became a point of conversation. “Herr Topp sat down beside me as I?described the titanium body of the computer and began typing away,” said Previtera. “He was silent for a bit and then said, pointing to my computer, ‘You know Stephen, this thing, well, it is all an enigma to me.’ He slowly said: ‘E-n-i-g-m-a’; I looked up to see a grin across his face as I got the joke.”

Two generations bridging the gap through an understanding of history: one a figure who made military history and the other its dutiful recorder. “That was a thrill and we both laughed,” Previtera said. “It’s unfortunate we did not have lunch that day; I?would never see Erich Topp again as he died one year later.”

Through his extensive research in the US and abroad, Previtera has observed magnificent collections. “I feel my most important contributions to the hobby have been photographing specimens never before brought to print,” he said. “Important pieces not even known to remain at the time.” While working on Prussian Blue: A History of the Order Pour le Mérite he photographed the awards of two Kaisers and a Czar. In The Iron Time: A History of the Iron Cross Previtera provided collectors with the first highly detailed images, from multiple angles, of the 1939 Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. Additionally in The Iron Time, he captured images of Field Marshal Blucher’s awards from a sash never before seen. “These accomplishments were assisted by others who cared – and care – about our hobby,” he said. “They wanted these important artifacts to see the light of day.”

Previtera offered a piece of pivotal advice for new collectors: if you get burned, don’t throw in the towel. “Learn from that lesson,” he said, “It will teach you more than every successful hunt combined.” He also encouraged collectors to avoid taking short cuts, like making a purchase based solely on the word of a collector or dealer. “If you want your money to go farther, engage your brain to do the same,” he said. “Become a student and study. We all want the answers, but only those who have toiled, and seen their collection take root and thrive in a world of misinformation, can truly be called students of the hobby.”

He encourages experienced collectors to avoid giving advice in areas with which they are unfamiliar. “You know what you know – be happy with the lessons experience has taught you and share only in those areas where your confidence is greatest,” he said. “The rest is just opinion, and that is a pale comparison to knowledge. Point out to younger collectors where they should begin their search for good pieces. Share your collections with serious students and give encouragement.”

Indeed, the demographics of the hobby demonstrate the need to encourage younger collectors. “If you sell an item, give a break if you can to someone just starting out,” he said. “We are only holders and protectors of our collections but one day we will need to pass them on. Let’s help a new generation understand the importance of preserving what has been passed down.”

Through Winidore Press, Previtera is pleased to provide collectors access to top-tier references. “It is not how many books published by Winidore, but the quality of each.” Winidore Press can take up to five years to produce a single volume, and he offers no apologies to those waiting on its release. “Our imagery is second to none and involves thousands of hours of time devoted to carefully capturing, and then balancing, the photographs found in each of our works. “

Previtera said Winidore Press pioneered many aspects of the modern quality militaria reference book. ”We were the first to show multiple angles of multiple awards, the first to flood our books with over a thousand color images, the first to list weights and dimensions for all the decorations shown, and the first to emphasize decorations to known recipients. We are still the only publisher to feature full-blown interview essays with multiple Knight’s Cross holders, as in The Iron Time, and the only publisher to offer full-size, one-to-one ratio medal and decoration poster charts for each and every one of our titles.” Winidore Press has demonstrated a passion for the topics they cover, and readers can be assured they will break new ground with each title offered. “Setting the pace for tomorrow’s reference book is our goal,” he said.

Previtera encourages interested parties to visit the Winidore Press Web site – www.winidorepress.com – and utilize the “Contact Us” link on the home page to leave a message or ask a question. “I?would be delighted to get back with you,” he said. “It is another way to keep our fellow collectors informed and is a natural extension of what we do at Winidore Press.” 

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