40 Years of collecting provides unique perspective
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 Ed Hicks. Most will recognize his name as one of the longtime professional, full-time dealers and owner of Warpath Military Collectibles in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Hicks has been a dedicated militaria collector specializing in Japanese Samurai swords, armor, and artwork as well as U.S. Airborne and U.S. Special Forces artifacts for more than 40 years. He has been in business as a full-time military antiques dealer for over 27 years.
As a full time gun dealer with a current Federal Firearms License (FFL), Ed’s expertise includes military, antique, and collectible firearms. He has served as a consultant to major military museums, universities, authors, and private collectors throughout the world you think will be of interest to the readers.
With more than four decades in the hobby, Hicks has a very good sense of the ups and downs of the hobby, and in particular, of operating a traditional storefront. We are pleased to offer his response to our “10 Questions.”
Military Trader: Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with us. I realize that you are a “guy of all trades” having your hand in all facets of militaria, but your store seems to be the center of it all. Tell us how you decided to open a store for military collectors
Ed Hicks: I‘ve collected militaria since age 10 when I first watched the movie, “The Longest Day.” That was the beginning of my fascination with WWII artifacts.
My collecting was primarily WWII German and US Airborne when I served in the 82d Airborne. I later became a dedicated Japanese sword and armor collector, thanks to my wife buying my first Japanese sword, a WWII Army officer’s sword. I don’t own that sword now. Once I started learning more, I traded it for older swords. I truly regret selling that sword since my wife gave it to me.
I have also collected US painted helmets, US valor medal groupings, WWII airborne and Vietnam Special Forces uniforms and insignia, as well as historical firearms. For many years I bought and traded militaria, in order to obtain better Samurai swords and armor. I ended up with too much to just trade for swords, so I started my business in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1988.
In 1994, I opened my first store in Fayetteville, North Carolina, followed by my current, larger store as my inventory grew, and I added firearms. My focus has primarily been Civil War, WWII, and Vietnam War material.
Military Trader: The way people collect has changed dramatically since you opened Warpath Military Collectibles nearly 30 years ago. How has your typical customer changed over those years?
Ed Hicks: When I started my store, most of my customers were fellow collectors with interests primarily in Civil War and WWII relics. There were also a lot of collectors in their teens and early twenties starting out, who had been influenced by their fathers’ and grandfathers’ collecting.
There are now fewer young collectors. Many old school collectors have stopped or transitioned to other areas of collecting, most are older now, more selective and with better focus.
Collecting is basically cyclical. Every collection starts with one object. Then, with the second acquisition, a collection is “born.” Successful collectors constantly seek to improve their collections through progressive, serious study, acquisition, and dispersal of lesser artifacts. Hopefully, their learning curve shortens as they lose money.
My current customers ages are well over forty with most actually nearer their 60s. It’s much more expensive to collect anything currently, and new collectors are faced with high prices even with entry level pieces such as German medals and badges. Newer, younger collectors tend to be more impatient with less attention to study. They tend to rely on internet searches and forums to get their information faster. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for firsthand experience, and a lot of newer collectors get frustrated early on as they make mistakes buying poor quality or reproduction artifacts. Nothing sours a junior collector more than being treated poorly by a dealer or fellow collectors and losing money on a bad deal.
I give beginning collectors advice (when asked). The best thing I can say is, “Narrow your focus in your collection, weed out anything that’s not original or good quality, and always buy the best you can afford.”
Military Trader: The internet is blamed for the closing of many traditional storefronts. But through it all, Warpath Military Collectibles has remained open. How have you maintained your business through the introduction and nearly total takeover of the Internet into our hobby?
Ed Hicks: Having a physical location has been problematic over the years. The obvious advantages of having a store are having space to operate and meet clients, buyers, and sellers. Business overhead costs and difficulties maintaining fresh, high-quality inventory online and in my store are constant sources of concern.
My store is my base of operations, especially since I have a firearms business. One of my biggest problems has been maintaining regular business hours since I travel so much. I wish store walk-ins were more often so I could stay there, but in reality, I have to travel constantly to shows, auctions, veterans and collectors’ homes – going to wherever the militaria is.
My store has always been a destination for local collectors and often, for dealers traveling through North Carolina. Maintaining a store front has allowed me the opportunity to meet and deal with a host of people over the years, and I enjoy having a location where I can conduct business in person. However, the Internet is now the largest part of my business since the collecting world has fully embraced online shopping over driving endlessly to obtain pieces for their collections.
Over the years, many people have told me how much they wished they could have my job. They seem to think all I do is sit back and watch folks bring in truck loads of militaria, but the reality is far more mundane. One major issue is that most conversations with potential sellers now begin with “I saw this on the Internet.” And, as most dealers can attest to, the conversation goes south shortly after that!
Having said that, the internet has affected every collector in so many ways, both good and bad, with seemingly endless options to find military artifacts as well as lose money through careless pursuit. There are thousands of options out there for customers to see. Buying and selling through a store remains a hands-on business experience which I feel is superior to logging in and checking out online.
In either case, I offer both in-store and online offerings to customers, and I’ll continue to do whatever works best for them. As much as I use my web site to sell, many of the rare and finer artifacts are sold before I can list them online. Unfortunately, collectors who don’t know me may never get to see the best material I handle unless they come to my store.
Military Trader: Through all these years, what methods have you used to maintain customer traffic to the store? What drives people to come into the store?
Ed Hicks: If it’s legal, I’ll try it to get people through my doors. The most frustrating part of having a store is trying to find a way to get new customers. I’d like to say the hundreds of ads I’ve run over the last four decades worked best, but it seems to be mostly my reputation for offering original artifacts, loyal repeat customers, and word of mouth for paying the highest prices for rare militaria.
First, I offer quality and a unique diversity of authentic inventory, and I unconditionally guarantee artifacts I sell to be authentic in all respects. Second, I always try to pay more for military antiques and charge less than my competitors. I always offer my customers the best available options whether I’m buying or selling, and I will refer the customer to other dealers or collectors who have something they want that’s not in my inventory.
Military Trader: Part of your passion seems to be sharing information. Tell us about the Online Warpath Military Museum. How did it start and is there a “real-life” version of it?
Ed Hicks: My personal collection is so diverse, it is best sharing the it online, although I have a “real-life” static museum in my store: From ancient Samurai swords and armor to a 7th Cavalry Colt revolver, to documented uniforms, helmets, and weapons used on D-Day, to rare Vietnam Special Forces medals, insignia, and uniforms, to current day US medal and artifact groupings. I have over 500 years of artifacts to show and share.
I have always displayed parts of my personal collection at shows and in my store, but the bigger audience is online. I have periodic rotating exhibits in my store, but that’s hard to maintain properly with all the other business.
My goal is collect, curate, conserve and preserve the finest military artifacts I can acquire with emphasis on rare historical objects and groupings. It’s a privilege to own historic artifacts. My online museum allows me to display far more of my collection in greater depth than I could in my store.
Another real issue having a museum in conjunction with a store is not having those artifacts to sell. When customers come to my store and see what’s there, many ask about buying items in my collection that are only for display. They need to come back when my wife’s there – she’ll sell anything in my store!
Military Trader: Collecting Samurai material, and in particular, blades, is something that fascinates many, but few seem to master it. What is your advice for someone considering acquiring antique Japanese swords?
Ed Hicks: That’s a tough one. First, study Japanese swords, firsthand, as often as possible. There is no substitute for hands-on examination and study of swords. Don’t pass any opportunity to handle good swords.
Join the JSS/US Japanese Sword Society of the U.S., NBTHK in Japan, follow the serious sword forums online, and read everything related to serious sword study. Go to Japanese sword shows, and ask questions of advanced collectors and dealers.
Japanese swords are a fascinating area for collectors, but it is also among the most difficult subjects to learn. You need to dedicate a tremendous amount of time and effort to obtain even basic understanding of what constitutes a good blade. Collecting WWII military issue swords is simpler than collecting traditional Samurai swords, but there are many variations to make it a rewarding challenge.
Always bear in mind that quality should win out over quantity. Buy the best you can afford (in most cases). Also, this area of collecting is made more difficult by the many forgeries and outright fakes coming out of China during the last few years. Learn from advanced sword collectors, and don’t be afraid to ask them questions – just don’t interrupt them when they’re in the middle of a deal (that’s another subject for a future article – “how NOT to screw up a deal by butting in.” Basic show etiquette and, at least, moderate social skills should be observed at all times). Collecting swords is a long, hard process of learning, making mistakes, getting lucky, winning, and losing deals.
Military Trader: You also have a passion for material related to the U.S. Airborne and Special Forces (SF). This is a popular theme in our hobby, and therefore, fraught with reproductions. In what types of material have you seen reproduction develop to be so good that you won’t collect in that area anymore? What advice do you have for people collecting SF material?
Ed Hicks: Patches and insignia are the areas that are the most counterfeited U.S. Airborne and Vietnam Special Forces items. Original, WWII-period Airborne patches range from $10 to well over $3,000 for some of the rarest patches. The good news for most WWII Airborne insignia is that they are mostly well-known and carefully documented, so reproductions are easier to spot.
On the other hand, Vietnam SF and MACV-SOG patches are among the most desirable insignia ever produced, but authentic pieces made during the war are actually quite scarce and in many cases, rare as hell. Having a SOG team member’s pocket patch made just for his team may have subtle differences with the “Cheap Charlie” patches made for collectors. Both were made during the war, but the identified team patch will command many times what the locally made collectors patch will bring.
Add to that mix, the bewildering profusion of similar Asian-made, post-Vietnam War insignia, and you can have serious problems discerning good from bad. Many post-war copies can be nearly impossible to tell and are offered as authentic. Troll through eBay a few times, and you’ll see mostly reproductions being offered as original. There are far more reproduction items now than there are original WWII or Vietnam War examples available, so there is always some low-life willing to stick it to you for a fast buck.
There are many highly respected dealers and trusted collectors you should deal with while learning who the crooks are. The militaria collecting fraternity is made smaller with the advent of the Internet, so you can more easily check on your sellers and intended purchases.
More importantly, try and meet veterans whenever possible. They are the reason you can collect today. They lived and made history. We are simply caretakers of the artifacts
Know your seller, read good reference books, study and compare authentic examples, join military forums, be curious and cautious, but make your questions useful, insightful and a learning experience.
Military Trader: Our readers love stories about collectors’ “Favorite Finds.” Tell us about what you consider one of your favorite store “walk-ins” during the past 40 years.
Ed Hicks: Many artifacts come to mind, but a few of the rarest standouts: A fine collection of Imperial German Orders; a rare Revolutionary War James Potter cavalry sword; Col. Charlie Beckwith’s (Delta Force founder and first commanding officer) personal gun collection; documented Airborne D-Day groupings and D-day US helmets; Vietnam Son Tay Raider Medals grouping and Vietnam Special Forces MACV-SOG groupings; and Vietnam veterans’ personally documented military issue and Rolex watches.
One of the most unique items I had walk in was a Silver Star medal grouping from the Battle of Hill 943 in Vietnam. It included interviews and film footage of the veteran in the combat action for which he won the medal.
I also have a remarkable US camouflage M1 helmet from the Baltimore Sun war correspondent who first reported Mussolini’s death, firsthand. The biggest pleasure owning my store has been the opportunities to obtain significant historical artifacts with personal documented histories from veterans who actually made history. Some of these groupings are on my Battlefield Museum website, and I’ll add many more related artifacts from my collection as time permits
Military Trader: We have all been “burned” by either fakes or buying something outside of our expertise, assuming it to be one thing, when it was something else. Tell us about a time when you felt you had been “burned,” and what you did once your realized it.
Ed Hicks: There haven’t been many times when I’ve bought items that weren’t original. More often, I’ve paid more than I should have just to have the item for my inventory or personal collection.
We all make mistakes, of course, and the proliferation of good reproduction German medals and Vietnam War insignia in recent years have been the most common problem. I don’t retain reproductions in my store. Any copies I get are offered to reenactors.
“Missed opportunities,” however, are what I recall the most. As a dealer and collector, I’m always seeking the next great find, and I may not recall a lot of things I’ve bought, but I damn sure remember what I missed! That’s the nature of collecting.
Military Trader: And finally, because many of us dream of owning our own shop or starting our own business, share what you consider to be the secret to your success as a shop and private museum owner.
Ed Hicks: Success is subjective, but I’m glad to still be in business and making a living doing what I enjoy (when it works, that is). Any success I enjoy, I owe entirely to my wife of nearly 40 years, Rocky, without whom I would still have a lot of cool stuff, but I’d be damn dead broke from acquiring and never selling. She has been my supporter and business partner and has a great eye for quality. Many times she’s purchased Japanese swords and other fine pieces that I couldn’t decide on – and she’s never been wrong! Besides that, years ago I borrowed enough money from her, that she can’t afford to leave me.
If success is equal to survival in business, I’ll say it has to be my perseverance, determination, and growing and changing with the times. In any business, you either adapt or die.
You can visit Ed Hick’s business, Warpath Fine Military Antiques and Collectibles at 819 Hope Mills Road, Fayetteville, NC 28304, phone: 910-425-7000 or view his current offerings. www.warpathmilitaria.com. View his online museum at www.battlefieldmuseum.org.