10 Questions with Kelly Hicks

Talking about collecting SS helmets

Having authored five books on the subject, Kelly Hicks is best-known for his expertise on SS helmets. He was the first individual to authoritatively identify – in print – the several mainstream patterns of original SS decals, and lay out the correlation between the decals and the helmet makers who used each specific type. His ground-breaking research led to an increase in detailed knowledge for collectors who are now much more confident to acquire the more expensive and rarer SS helmets.

Having authored five books on the subject, Kelly Hicks is best-known for his expertise on SS helmets. He was the first individual to authoritatively identify – in print – the several mainstream patterns of original SS decals, and lay out the correlation between the decals and the helmet makers who used each specific type. His ground-breaking research led to an increase in detailed knowledge for collectors who are now much more confident to acquire the more expensive and rarer SS helmets.

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 Kelly Hicks, who most will recognize as one of the foremost experts and dealers in WWII relics, specializing in SS helmets.

Kelly has been a collector of militaria since 1964, an author of 5 books on SS helmets since 1992 and a world-class militaria dealer since 2008. Kelly was an officer in the US Army from 1979 to 2000, living overseas about 14 of those years. He retired  as a Lieutenant Colonel in Special Forces. Now, Kelly is 16 years into his second career in the private sector, and runs his website “SS-Steel-inc.com” (a full-up LLC) on evenings and weekends.

Though Kelly offers a wide range of military relics, he is best-known for his expertise on SS helmets, having  authored five books on the topic. He was  the first individual to authoritatively identify – in print – the several mainstream patterns of original SS decals, and lay out the correlation between the decals and the helmet makers who used each specific type. This ground-breaking research led to an increase in detailed knowledge for collectors who are now much more confident to acquire the more expensive and rarer SS helmets.

With more than 51 years of 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 SS Helmet Collecting.”

Military Trader: Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with us. You are, literally, world-famous for your expertise in SS helmets. Let’s start off by paraphrasing a question we hear the most in our office: “With so many fakes in SS helmets so readily available, how would you advise a new collector to approach this facet of militaria collecting?”

Kelly Hicks: First, allow me to thank you for the honor of the opportunity to participate in this interview for your esteemed publication.

The best advice I could give a new collector is, as I have said since my first book back in 1992-3, “Know who you are buying from and make sure you have a reasonable guarantee of your money back if there is any problem.” Any honest person, including the reputable dealers, will be readily willing to do a deal back. Also, read the books and get as much knowledge as you can. Seek knowledge from advanced collectors.

Military Trader: How would you characterize a “typical” Third Reich helmet collector today? How has that person’s collecting habits changed in the last thirty years?

Kelly Hicks: I think a ‘typical’ collector of today is a person who has a lot more research tools available to him or her, especially online. They are in possession of a lot more information – instantly – to make decisions about what to buy. There certainly is a lot of material available online and at shows.

If I was to characterize the modern helmet collector, I would say they are interested in combat-used items more than ever, and especially those tied to an historical event, such as Normandy, the Bulge, etc.

If I had to make a suggestion to modern collectors, I would advise they look at the rich wealth of collectibles of the earlier SS, from 1934 to 1939. This field contains a wide range of interesting helmets and uniforms that were ever-changing and adapting…a great area to dabble in!

Military Trader: The investment in an SS helmet can be a substantial one for any person. What should a new collector do before purchasing an example?

Kelly Hicks: I would say that collectors should avoid searching on sites like Craigslist and similar, where there are an enormous number of fakes. I get several authentication requests per week from collectors wanting to buy this way – they are nearly always fakes, offered at prices too cheap to be true.

The dealers online today, on the other hand, are pretty careful about presenting original material (helmets) or they know they will not stay in business long; so collectors can buy from them with confidence and knowledge that they have recourse.

Understandably, many dealers have a high price on SS items. New collectors must be aware that this is the case, but alternatively, they will spend a long time looking for a “cheap SS helmet” and possibly get defrauded in their quest to find an original untouched example if they try the “Craigslist route.”

Military Trader: Your company, SS Steel LLC, offers collectors the chance to protect the value of their helmets through an array of services. Can you explain how this works?

Kelly Hicks: I personally inspect and authenticate the helmets I sell and provide a COA with each purchase. Additionally, collectors bring me their helmets for certification and if real, I produce a COA, accordingly. This has, for years, provided collectors with a “bargaining chip” when they go to sell their helmet. I do a lot of these for collectors on a continuing basis. (A slightly wider discussion on technical authentication tools as part of this process is addressed below in the XRF question).

Military Trader: X-ray florescence (XRF) seemed to be a revolutionary advancement in the hobby, but then fell from favor as fast as it appeared. Can you tell us about the process and do you still use it today in authenticating helmets?

Kelly Hicks: I appreciate the question. Essentially, I no longer use XRF as one of my authentication methods, although it was exciting to work with. I, and many others are fans of this technology, which is widely used by museums and universities throughout the world for forensic analysis of inorganic materials; from stone to oil paints to porcelain to metals.

While it showed great promise, especially in my main focus: The absolute determination of the material composition of helmet decals, there had been a growth of opposition to the practice among certain members of the community.

There is a long story to my involvement with XRF, but I will skip the drama and be concise. My role had not been on the technical end. Rather, it was as the final inspector of helmets for a visual hands-on, to ensure the machine’s verdict was understood and in line with visual expectations of decal characteristics. We had trained technicians who knew how to interpret the data from the helmet scans, analyzing the data and comparing and measuring it with a growing database of original data scans from the best known examples.

The brief history of XRF is a disappointing one. As we all know, social media can be very political and agenda-driven. Over time, a negative narrative about XRF had been carefully crafted and repeated; to the extent that reasonable collectors questioned its merits as a dependable authentication method. Many were reluctant to express positiveness about it publicly because of fear of rejection and criticism on social media. Moreover, we discovered that one of our team (under an alias) argued about it on social media, causing damage and further fanning the flames. Recognizing this, and due to the growing backlash, the expense of maintaining the equipment, and the untimely death of one of our key members and benefactors, we decided to stop the service.

All advanced collectors, authors and dealers who know me know that my main focus for decades has been to try to defeat fraudsters and keep the hobby clean. These helmets – these pieces of history – are far too important to us to let some faker ruin it for people who love history and get immense pleasure from owning and handling these incredible and historic items. Hopefully, someday the technology and potential of XRF and its application to military artifacts can be embraced by the collecting community and possibly fill a role as an important weapon in the fight against forgery.

Military Trader: Currently, the “elephant in the room” seems to be champagne-colored SS runes “decals.” We have been reading a lot of discussions on forums about how these were actually painted on helmets in attempt to defraud collectors. Can you tell to our readers about the background on the runes, and whether they are painted or decals.  If the former, how did they fool the experts for all these years

Kelly Hicks:  Great question – I appreciate the opportunity to address this.

There is a wide range of debate on this topic, from respectful and thoughtful, to shamefully inappropriate. I will try to do it justice from my perspective, addressing the thoughtful part.

First I have to say, unequivocally, to eliminate any doubt in anyone’s mind about this topic: Every member of the collecting community who knows me, knows I have never defrauded or misrepresented anything, ever. My integrity is not negotiable and I have always treated people with honesty and respect and righted any mistake I ever made – immediately.

As has always been the case, anybody in this hobby is free to agree with, disagree, believe or disbelieve anything they encounter in collecting.  Blue eagles, champagne runes, herringbone linings,  the litany of  possibles…collectors are free to collect or not; to make their own judgments based on their knowledge and the available information. Nobody can do that for them.

Definition. First off, I think it’s fair to define what a “champagne rune” is. Many collectors have not owned or held one in hand, so it’s important to level-set the issue – especially since such sweeping declarations have been made about (all) of them. An explanation of my viewpoint on these may also help serve as a means not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”

In my observation: A champagne rune is a variant of the ET pattern decal, composed of ingredients that create a coppery or bronze-tone appearance to the shield. During my analysis in preparation for what would be my book, SS Steel, I noted that these decals appeared mainly on NS helmets, with two or so appearing on ET shells (I still called those the “NS Pattern” rune). To me, they are visually higher quality than most decals. They do the same thing as other decals under UV light. They sometimes exhibit oxidation or verdigris under magnification. They display a lacquer coating in most instances.

My Findings: My first experience with these (and all SS helmets) began in my early teenage (I’m going on 60 now) gun show years, when I was sweeping the isles for German helmets. Once every few shows, I encountered helmets with what I later called “champagne rune” decals on them. I purchased one from a veteran – a beauty with chicken wire. I didn’t have a name for the decal at the time. I just recognized it as what I had come to expect a real helmet should look like and that was the end of the story for me— as an 18-year-old high-schooler who had already amassed about 35 Wehrmacht and SS helmets over the years.

I didn’t notice it was an NS until I started paying attention to maker markings in later years. A friend of mine, who is also a noted author, recently viewed the same helmet and expressed his opinion that the helmet bears an ET pattern decal. So that is an example of what is sometimes in the eye of the beholder with these. But for me, I see a difference (a champagne rune).

A close friend and mentor postulated in 1989, that in his opinion, these insignia may represent a type of subdued SS runic decal, similar to subduing of decals such as green or grey Luftwaffe eagles, as a means of general camouflage for a helmet. In terms of analysis, like other SS shields, I found the runic shields black- lighted (pale green) like other originals, and you could see the lacquer outlines under the UV light. A collector friend of mine in Japan who owned one of these helmets first pointed out the UV aspect to me.

Much later, in 2010, when some of these underwent x-ray florescence scanning, I was advised that they showed the same elemental composition as Pocher and ET decals, with the exception of containing an additional 3% copper. Clearly, these were proven to be composed of heavy metals like other decals, not paint. In retrospect, we did not scan any fake champagne decals that I recall; just fake ETs and Q. Those turned out to be full of bismuth or non-heavy metals, unlike originals that are full of heavy metals. Evidently, the fakes are painted and show evidence of that.

Points of Debate: Some of the debate about “champagne runes” includes “a lack of period photos showing them in wear.” Regarding period photos, given that collectors today still routinely confuse champagne rune decals with ET decals in hand or in good quality pictures, it is fair to presume that identification of period photos of these decals would be even more of a challenge to recognize. Period photos are lower quality usually, but occasionally they are sharp and well taken.

There are period photos in my books that show, based on the helmet shape and vent positioning, NS and SE helmets with a second pattern runic decal on them. The presence of 2nd pattern runes on NS helmets in a period photo basically negates ET if we go by my decal to maker findings. Furthermore, ET decals are rarely seen on any shell but ET or CKL. Only a sprinkling of ET decals appear on EF-produced M42 shells.

In my book, SS Steel there is a picture of Otto Kumm wearing an NS shell with a second style rune on it (page 161) – likely a “champagne rune.” In my book, SS Helmets with the late Mike Beaver, we show a very good portrait shot of a soldier in an SE helmet with a “second style” rune that looks remarkably similar to a champagne rune (page 198).

The second point of contention is the observation that no “champagne runes” have been found un-applied or still on the paper. No examples of un-applied EF or Q variants have – to my knowledge – been discovered to exist on paper either, so the fact that there are no known un-applied champagne rune decals is not indicative of a lack of originality. Champagne rune-decaled helmets are rare, so finding one of the decals on paper is likely going to be harder.

There are fake examples of this decal, to be sure, just as there are “Round Bottom” Pocher fakes, fake ETs, crush glass fake Pochers, Italian fake Pochers, fake Qs, fake fat runes and all other variants. The presence of fakes in all of these does not preclude the existence of originals…if that were the case, there would be no original SS helmets! Another way to put it is: The room would be full of elephants.

To pause and reflect a bit, this was – and is – the beauty of collecting, in my view. Things are beheld in various ways, with various opinions held by collectors; all discussed and debated in a friendly way. There was never such drama about disagreements. Collectors enjoyed themselves and collected for themselves. They collected with their friends and enjoyed the fellowship the hobby brings. I subscribe to this philosophy. I am dedicated to sharing whatever I learn, and that has always put me in good stead.

For the purposes of this Q&A, however, there is a larger point to make about SS helmets: In the earlier days, there were many helmet collectors who did not believe the SS used any helmets except those made by ET and Q. I pondered that, knowing I had seen many more than just the product of those two makers that I believed to be solidly real.

We eventually came to know EF certainly made SS helmets, and Pocher decals appear on several levels from Allgemeine to reissue and field application. According to the late Ludwig Baer, in a face-to-face conversation in his home in 2010, NS and SE made SS helmets for the main contractors when they had small shortfalls in filling contracts. He cited Bundesarchiv documents he had found during research in the old Bonn location that outlined this situation in the form of small bits of correspondence between helmet manufacturers. For me, this first person research with the greats of the hobby was a solid way to go in drawing my own conclusions and analysis.

To Recap and Conclude: Based on the above, including NS or champagne runes into the taxonomy of SS helmets was entirely proper to do.

I pointed out the “Da Vinci Code” of decals in my book, SS-Steel for the first time anywhere, and it is now worldwide shared knowledge. I presented knowledge I had attained over time, through hard effort and attention to detail. Importantly, in my books, I clearly state that this is in no way the final word on any of the information on SS helmets. I wasn’t there at the helmet factories, so I had to rely on analytical approaches I had learned as an archeology undergrad to take well-calculated risks and lay out what I believe was the proper and authoritative taxonomy of original SS helmets—for all collectors. None of my work was anecdotal or putting a finger in the air. It was measurement, cataloging, using source language, and pictorial reference, etc.

The truly great works on German helmets started with Ludwig Baer. Subsequent works that came out predictably would carry the study to new heights. Certainly, out of my thesis, sprang the subsequent excellent research efforts by others that led to the differentiation of the universe of decals on Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, and other helmets; in an array of really great books. This is what it means to have a good, healthy hobby with lots of learning and sharing of information, friendship, and respect. (This trend needs to continue lest we become bitter and lose the up-and-coming generation).

I therefore accepted these “champagne runes” in my analysis of 25 years ago as a responsible research result, based again on my experience, analysis, and discovery. That was a sound, proper approach. Sometimes, it is necessary to take a risk to provide new analysis on something considered to be “non-mainstream” or “under debate” as these were /are.

It is on this research and hard work that I base a large measure of my position that there are real and fake champagne runes – not just fakes. In fact, after my first book, SS Helmets in 1993, wherein I featured a transitional helmet with mirror runes on it, suddenly a large amount of “mirror rune” fakes began to appear on all kinds of helmets in auctions and at shows. I can imagine the fakers did the same thing after I featured NS pattern runes in SS Steel.

To add one final factor regarding my research and analysis on “champagne runes:” Over the years, it is my strong opinion that too many stars would have had to line up for a faker to have introduced them into the environment, with them being encountered literally thousands of miles apart, in foreign countries, and the US and in all manner of contexts. I feel that anyone – any historian / collector / author / military officer / military academic – would draw the same conclusion given this situation. I still accept the ones I vetted, just as I accept that there are (painted) fake versions out there, as well, which I have noted and shared with others over the years when I encountered them.

In closing, people are free to draw their own conclusions based on their experience; as always is and should be the case. The information I put out in the books was not intended to be the final word, but as a (hopefully) guiding set of knowledge. It was meant to be helpful. To my utter pleasure, the information was instantly and warmly welcomed by collectors worldwide and is still relevant and still helpful. That is a reward I could not have anticipated, and for which I am forever grateful.

Military Trader: Within our lifetime, we have seen the value of a basic, single decal SS M40 helmet rise from several hundred to thousands of dollars. Has the SS helmet market reached its zenith?

Kelly Hicks: I noted the meteoric rise of SS helmet prices in the early part of the last decade, continuing up to approximately the passage of burdensome economic regulations in the US and the EU. Like all things in high-end antique collecting, the world’s economic and market pressures have impacted our hobby as well. Prices are now down slightly (up to 20% on standard condition items) from the peak of 2011. The minty or one-of-a-kind SS helmets still tend to hold high value.

Military Trader: In many areas of militaria, researching the original owner of an item has been a method of increasing both historical and monetary value of an item. Is this possible with SS helmets? If a person finds a name in a helmet, what resources are available for researching an SS member’s history?

Kelly Hicks: There are many excellent resources available to research named helmets. I used to do all of my own research at the National Archives, until I discovered people who could do it better and more accurately. Among these individuals are Ross Kellbaugh, Dieter Stenger, Mike Constandy, and others. When named helmet can be identified to the wearer, it is definitely a value enhancer, both historically and monetarily.

Kelly’s favorite find? “Well, it would have to be the helmet of SS-Obergruppenführer Karl-Hermann Frank, the successor to Reinhard Heydrich and the infamous ‘butcher of Prague’.” Frank’s helmet was taken by a US Army PFC who took him prisoner on May 9, 1945. The family of the American GI walked it into a Texas episode of Antiques Roadshow in 2010, and Kelly was fortunate enough to obtain it through his close colleague, Bruce Hermann.

Kelly’s favorite find? “Well, it would have to be the helmet of SS-Obergruppenführer Karl-Hermann Frank, the successor to Reinhard Heydrich and the infamous ‘butcher of Prague’.” Frank’s helmet was taken by a US Army PFC who took him prisoner on May 9, 1945. The family of the American GI walked it into a Texas episode of Antiques Roadshow in 2010, and Kelly was fortunate enough to obtain it through his close colleague, Bruce Hermann.

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.

Kelly Hicks: I have to say my all-time favorite find was the helmet of SS-Obergruppenführer Karl-Hermann Frank, the successor to Reinhard Heydrich and the infamous “butcher of Prague.” Frank’s helmet was taken from him by a US Army PFC who took him prisoner on May 9, 1945. The family of the PFC walked it into a Texas episode of Antiques Roadshow in 2010, and I was fortunate enough to obtain it through my close colleague, Bruce Hermann. I have a few pictures to share along with this article.

Military Trader: And finally, the question we all want to ask the experienced veteran collectors, such as yourself, “How will helmet collecting change over the next ten years?”

Kelly Hicks: In my view, helmet collecting will continue to enjoy a very positive place in militaria collecting overall. The popularity of German helmets will always be strong; they are iconic and have a powerful allure due to their shape, decoration, and symbolism. As long as there are collectors, helmets will be robustly collected.

The only thing I see as a potential downside is if we have continued economic stagnation, more of the younger collectors will be driven out. If we have controversy and eat our own, that will also drive younger collectors out. We need civility and fellowship, which is what I joined this hobby for. We need leadership and sharing of historical and contextual study. With those in place, we can weather the economic pressures and at the same time grow our numbers of collectors. In that way, we can enjoy a very bright 20 or more years to come.

We are honored to interview and report on prominent players in our hobby. To learn more about Kelly Hicks’s business, SS Steel Inc., or more importantly, to view his current offerings, log onto www.ss-steel-inc.com or contact Kelly Hicks via email at kellyhicks@hotmail.com.

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