It is a rare thing to find a collector who has stayed focused on the same niche for more than 30 or 40 years. Being one of those guys who has been collecting since he could walk and say, “Can I have your medals?”, I have changed paths many times. It hasn’t been without regret, however.
IS AN INTEREST LIFE-LONG?
I just returned from the West Coast Militaria Show in Pomona, Calif. When old timers talk about the days of the “Great Western,” they will usually say this show is the "next best thing." Indeed, I tend to regard the “Pomona Show” (as most call it) as the western jewel in the militaria “Triple Crown” – The Show of Shows, MAX Show and the West Coast Militaria Show.
Besides a great mix of militaria with historic military vehicles, the highlights of the Pomona Show, for me, include a whole new clientele and range of products that I don’t see at shows on the east side of the Rockies. In fact, while setting up our table, Nick and I met a young man, about 17 or 18 years old, and his mother who were setting up on the row next to ours. Through the course of the day, we chatted about a myriad of things, but like any good collector, I was always eyeballing what he had on his table.
During one lull, I noticed a small U.S. medal group consisting of an Indian Campaign, Spanish Campaign and Philippine Campaign medals. All were numbered, and all traced back to the same guy: A Minnesotan serving in the 21st Infantry. I was hooked. I wanted to add this set to my collection. As I paged through the research, we talked about the group. He said he had put a price tag of $4,000 on it, thinking no one would pay that outlandish amount. To his surprise (but not mine), someone had offered him $3,800, and “was probably going to come back.” My heart sank a little—for two reasons. First, I couldn’t divert that amount from my main collecting focus: WWI AEF Tank Corps stuff. That kind of money could land me a nice officer’s group with a Model 1911 pistol (something I have been offered and have been saving funds to purchase). Second, I recognized something I used to do as a young collector that has left me with a regret or two.
SMART TOO LATE
One of my very first “focused” collecting efforts was when I bought all the Hitler Youth (“HJ” or “Hitler Jugend”) material I could find back when I was 17 and 18 years old. When I set up my goods at a show, I also took my Riker mounts filled with HJ material, including an HJ Skiing Badge and a numbered, cased leader badge complete with the kid’s award document (“Sportbuch des HJ Fuehrers”) and membership card with photo. In the realm of Third Reich material, not great items, but for an 18-year-old kid, pretty darn good things!
Of course, I had to show off those items. Not having anywhere to do that other than a show (no club or local collectors where this could be done), I displayed the items on my table with that all-but-genuinely-detested sticker, “NFS” (“Not For Sale”). Well, that sticker wasn’t much of a defense. When some old, seasoned collector started laying hundred dollar bills in front of me, my “NFS” attitude eroded to “WMFS” (“Well, Maybe For Sale”) until it reached inside the adobe walls of my mental Alamo: “WTF!” (“Well, That’s Fine”…or a close variation of that). I took the money, and the cornerstone of my HJ collection was gone. Within a few weeks, so was the money. I decided to switch my collecting focus to 1950s Bundeswehr Paratrooper material.
By the time I was 22, my paratrooper collection had grown to include several named insignia sets that included gorgeous bullion paratrooper wings and a couple of fine helmets. What became of the collection, you ask? Well, same pattern as the HJ collection: I took the stuff to a show. I didn’t really want to sell it, but rather, show it off. Just having the stuff on my table, however, led to someone talking me into selling my best stuff, leaving me with low-end Bundeswehr material. The “plums” were gone, and all that was left just wasn’t that exciting.
I then decided to begin collecting WWII German helmets. That is the subject of a future JAG File that is punctuated by an elderly cousin who took advantage of my willingness to believe. He painted several helmets with rare variations of insignia that he would then sell to me “because we were family!”
WISDOM FROM AN OLD SAGE?
Well, as all military show conversations go, someone who actually was going to buy something interrupted ours. As the young man conducted his potential sale with a cash-carrying customer, I returned to my table. I sat down and began thinking about the medals, and the young man’s situation.
His mother was quick to lean over to tell me how much she admired her son’s interest, and how he funds the collecting all by himself. She even mentioned the dilemma he was facing with the medals. “That’s a lot of money, but he doesn’t have anything invested,” she divulged. “He found them in a box of trinkets he had bought at a flea market.” Wow! Some guys have all the luck!
Old habits die hard, and “money for nothing” is one of my toughest habits to break. My first thoughts were, “In the medals for nothing and walk away for $4k? Where’s the debate?” I didn’t offer any advice though, I sat there thinking about it as people came up to my table to talk about the magazine or fill out a raffle ticket (we were giving away free subscriptions and books).
Eventually, I tried to picture myself in his shoes. If I were 18 and just finding my collecting path, I would consider myself pretty lucky to have found the medals, but I wouldn’t appreciate how lucky I had been. Having put on a lot of miles since I was 18, I now know, named, pre-WWI medal groups (or identified HJ Leader badges, for that matter) don’t pop up too often. One thing I did know, whatever the amount, the money will go…and be replaced, repeating the pattern many times.
When we were able to chat again, I commented on just how special the group was, adding, “You may not be interested in pre-WWI stuff right now, but your collecting ‘palate’ is still developing.” I advised, “You are into these medals for very little. You can only sell them once. You probably won’t have a chance at something like this again unless you are prepared to pay retail.” I concluded by suggesting, “You might just want to put them away, take them home and keep them in your collection for a few months. If they are worth $4K today, they will still be worth that much six months from now.”
When I returned to Minnesota after the show, I shared the story about the young man and his medals with my partner. Before I could tell her what I had advised, she blurted out, “I hope you told him, ‘TAKE THE MONEY!’” Wow. Didn’t see that one coming. I forget, though, she has never—ever—been bitten by the collecting bug. She doesn’t appreciate the sense of connection to history one gets from holding a man’s set of medals or gazing at the uniform he wore at the Somme in 1918. She does, however, have an innate appreciation for the value of a dollar and how many of them a young person will need to pay for college!
Well, convincing her of my point of view would be like trying to get a horse into a dinner jacket. I could really struggle and try many different strategies, but in the end, that horse would still be going to dinner wearing just the hair he was born with. Similarly, she would not be convinced the young collector is any better off going home with the three medals he took to the show.
WHAT’S YOUR OPINION?
In all honesty, the young man hadn’t asked for any advice. Perhaps, he and I would have been better off had I minded my own business (that is usually really difficult for me…. I have a big nose and it tends to get into a whole lot of stuff where most noses would never go). What do you think? If you were the person talking to this young man, what would you have suggested? Drop me a note (email@example.com). We can continue this discussion in the pages of Military Trader.
Until then, keep finding the good stuff,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine
P.S. Next weekend is Memorial Day. As usual, as I have done for many, many years, I will be at cemeteries, thinking about the sacrifices women and men have made in the service of the United States. I am sure many of you have your own Memorial Day rituals. Send us photos of how you commemorate Memorial Day. We can share them on our Facebook page to honor the memory.