10 collecting tips

Full German gear

Whether new to the hobby or a veteran, these will help you enjoy!

During the past thirty years, I have collected in many areas of militaria, each with equal passion. In that time, I have made many mistakes. I have sold items I wish I hadn’t, missed items that I wished I had bought and made some really poor life decisions. Based on all of this, I have formulated a list of ten tips I would like to offer to someone just getting in the hobby. I can’t promise these will guarantee collecting “success” (whatever that is!) if you follow them, but my hope is you can attain maximum satisfaction from the hobby.

1. Set a collecting goal

I know you are really excited about some sort of militaria right now, and it is hard to think about much else. But try to imagine how you want your collection to develop over the next ten years. Do you want to fill a room with relics? Do you want to use relics to instruct others about military history? Or do you want to “cash out” for a profit? You might have multiple goals, and they may change, but taking the time to think about it will help you make hard decisions about what to buy down the road.

2. Acquire research material

This might be a reflection of my age, but I place a lot of value on published articles and books. Whereas there is a lot of information to be found on the internet, it is not a replacement for the printed word—not yet, anyway. While it is very difficult to spend $50 on the most recent book when there are cool relics to be had, consider it the real investment in your collecting career.

3. Join a forum

In the old days, we formed “collecting clubs” where we got together once a month and played “show and tell.” While there are a few of those still functioning, Internet forums have quickly replaced most. Take the time to investigate, and you will probably find there is a forum already established that deals with your particular area of focus. Introduce yourself and spend time reading through the past threads of conversations. You will fast gain a sense of the high and low points of the hobby. But hang back…you remember how obnoxious the gregarious new kid was at school? Don’t be that kid on the forum. A good forum is a resource, not a hang-out for the lonely.

4. Network for “hands-on” experience

As good as the Internet is for opening the world of collecting to you, it is no substitute for actual handling and examining of relics. If you get to know a local collector or two, ask to visit their home to see their collection. Let them show you all of their treasures and soak up their explanations. Contact museums to make arrangements to visit with the curator and examine specific segments of the collection. Finally, attend shows, shows, and more shows. These are the best, hands-on experience available to collectors, regardless of how much money is in your pocket. You are able to study pieces up close, ask questions and benefit from the dealers’ years of experience.

5. Focus

When I was young, I was overly impressed with dealers who had stacks of Riker mounts on their table. To me, that meant they were hardcore collectors. When I visited the homes of a couple of these collectors, I found their personal collections were just like their Riker mounts: Huge assemblies of weapons, uniforms, helmets, flags, maps, medals, drums, and most anything else military-related.

While volume was impressive, none of it worked together to tell much of a story other than, “Look at all the stuff I have bought!” A focused collection will help you develop an expertise about some aspect of military history that you can than share with anyone willing to listen. A big pile of mediocrity is still just mediocre. A focused, developed collection is something that will reflect your level of enthusiasm and scholarship.

6. Don’t buy on credit

Here’s another tip based on my own poor judgement. When I received financial aid for college, I spent it on German helmets. During my first marriage, I spent my extra money on Mexican War medals rather than taking my family on trips, paying the mortgage, or painting the house. During the years of my second marriage, I bought WWI photographs and uniforms instead of taking family vacations, paying the mortgage, or painting the house (yes, there is a pattern here, but that is subject of another editorial!).

A very important lesson I can impart is this: If the military made one, they made a thousand. If you have to pass on an item on a site or at a show, chances are very good you will find another. Don’t sacrifice living expenses to buy military relics. And more importantly, don’t charge your relic purchases.

7. Buy quality

It doesn’t matter if you are currently collecting Civil War bullets, WWII German helmets or insignia from Desert Storm, you will be much happier when you are 50 if you spent your money on quality items rather than buying quantity.

The collectors who spent thirty years of their lives buying every cheap military trinket they found are fast becoming candidates for one of the hoarder-type reality shows. A pile of cheap stuff is just that: Cheap.

It takes real discipline for the Civil War bullet collector to pass by the “Any bullet for 50 cents” box, but when he stumbles on the Maynard carbine “tophat” cartridge for $15 he will be glad he hadn’t filled a bag with cheap crap. It would be tragic if the helmet collector spent $85 for another Luftschutz helmet only to find a camo-painted M35 for $300 moments later that he could no longer afford to buy.

8. Learn how to care for your collection

Again, I am assuming one of your implied goals is to not end up on one of the hoarder shows. Conservation is nowhere near as exciting as acquiring new items, but you do want your collection to remain pretty much in the same condition while you own it. Well, time, heat and oxygen are three things that are threatening your collection. Take the time to learn how to minimize the decay.

9. Have an exit strategy

It is important to realize there may come a time when you have to part with your collection. Generally, dealers circle around searching for one of three “D’s” of acquisition opportunities: Death, Divorce or Debt. Those are the top three reasons why collections are dispersed, but of course, there are countless others.

Whatever the impetus for disposing of your collection, you will be better off if you have thought it out ahead of time. Too often, I encounter widows or family who complain that their collecting loved one died with no instructions other than, “don’t let anyone screw you—this stuff is valuable.”

Once you have an idea of how you would liquidate your collection, make sure that you write it down (make it legal in a will or bequest), describe it to friends or even make arrangements with a dealer.

10. Remember, it’s just stuff

Okay, it’s really cool stuff, but don’t let it get between you and other humans! Too many marriages (two here), friendships, and family connections are lost because a collector has lost perspective. It is just stuff…do you think the soldiers who wore, carried, earned or used the relics we crave would want the items to wreck our relationships with spouses, family and friends? 

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