For many years, I have passed a garage containing a WWII Jeep on my way to work. Each morning, I would glance to see if it was still in the spot it seemed to always occupy. Occasionally, its spot alongside a new Cadillac would be vacant, but when I drove home that the evening, the Jeep would be nestled back in its stall. Then, last week, with the morning sun reflecting off the white star on its hood, there sat the Jeep at the end of the driveway – a “For Sale” sign sticking up next to it. I had to investigate!
Parking across the street from the Jeep, I realized there was a garage sale taking place at the home. “Maybe they moved the Jeep out to make room,” I considered, before remembering that I had seen a “For Sale” sign next to it. I casually approached the sale, looking at the Jeep from the corner of my eye. As I passed the Jeep and approached the first row of tables stacked with baby clothes, I made a quick inventory of what I had seen: Older restoration—paint fading. Some rust around the tool boxes. Old seat cushions (probably original), lock-out hubs on front wheels, and a distinct track of oil drips leading back to the garage where the Jeep normally resided.
Making a quick sweep of the rest of the garage sale (no tools or military items to be found!), I ambled back to the Jeep, hands in my pockets. I continued my inventory: Taillight cracked, data plates present—a Ford built in 1945, turn signals added, gas tank by-passed to a 5-gallon plastic gas can behind driver’s seat. As I looked, an elderly woman approached, “Well, my kids tell me it’s time to sell my husband’s Jeep.”
“I have watched this Jeep for years,” I quickly replied. “Every morning, I check to see if it is still in the garage.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “We haven’t really driven it since my husband passed away. I guess it is time to find a new home for it.”
The planets were lining up! My heart rate increased. As we talked, I made my way around to the front of the “For Sale” sign to see if a price was indicated — nothing – just a phone number. We continued chatting. “It started right up,” she offered. “Of course, you have to be able to drive a stick.”
This was all going well. She knew just enough to sell the Jeep. We both could see the condition. I was busy on the calculator in my brain, adding up a list of spare parts and projects this Jeep would need to make it a good driver. As we chatted, I came up with the “magic” number—anything in the realm of $8,000-$10,000 would allow for another $5,000-$6,000 of repairs, replacements, and repaint. It was a fair price for her — someone who was clearly finished enjoying the Jeep. It was also a good price for me — one I could afford and also justify as a decent purchase. Finally, I mustered the nerve to ask the question.
“So what are you asking for the Jeep?” I queried looking her in the eye. “Well, I have to get out of it what my husband has in it, right?” she replied, more of a statement than a question. “You wouldn’t believe how many men have stopped to look at it,” she offered, avoiding my request. Finally, she said, “I have to get $25,000 for it.”
I smiled and thanked her for her time. As I walked back to my car, I couldn’t help but become a bit angry. I figured a decade of Pawn Stars and American Pickers had finally educated the general populace that ’What I have in it’ doesn’t have any impact on price. Clearly, this widow had not gone through that re-education process!
She isn’t alone. I still run into the same statement at shows. I might be looking at a uniform group or a Purple Heart (without any price on them!) and am forced to ask, “How much?” All too often, I don’t receive a straight-forward price, but have to listen to, “Well, I have $xx in it…”
Where did this start? If I ask my butcher how much hamburger costs, he doesn’t reply with, “Well, I’ve got $xx in it…” He simply states a price, and I decide whether or not I want to pay that price. It doesn’t matter to me if he paid two dollars more or less for the hamburger than the price he has on it. That’s his business. And yet, in our hobbies, there seems to be the feeling that, “If I spent $xx for something, I am entitled to that price plus a decent profit.” That works in business – if you know your market. If you don’t, you go out of business.
But collecting isn’t a business — it is a hobby. We buy, restore, and preserve because we take great satisfaction in the history to which the vehicles, weapons, uniforms, and relics connect us. We passionately restore Jeeps, trucks, and tanks, not because of a hope to “Get what we have in it,” but because we love the feeling we have when driving, displaying, or discussing the vehicles. That amount “we have in it” is the "price to play" — like the money we spend when we go to a movie. We pay for the enjoyment, without expecting to get the money back.
I experienced this many years ago when I bought a Model 1853 Enfield Rifle with strong provenance (a 6th Corps badge and name carved in the stock). When I asked my buddy what he wanted for it, I was shocked when he explained, “Five years ago, I paid $6,000 for the rifle. I knew that was too much, but I have had such great pleasure from it, researching it, displaying it, talking about it. I know it is a $3,500 rifle on a good day, so that is what I want for it. That other $1,500 I have in it? Well, that doesn’t really figure into it if you think about the hours of entertainment I have had — that was probably a bargain compared to going to the movies for that length of time!”
That rifle sale taught me a valuable lesson: The value of historic relics is essentially based on fixed values established by supply and demand. Where the prices get going a bit crazy is when either the seller or the buyer allow the passion to seep into the equation (I am repeatedly guilty of this in my Tank Corps collecting — I pay way more than I should for items I really want). “What we have in it” is actually the price we were once willing to pay for the relic and the anticipated entertainment and enjoyment it would provide.
But don’t worry — for the vast majority of us, this isn’t a business, it’s a hobby. For those for whom buying and selling is a business, they have long since figured out this balance between “what I have in it” and “what it’s really worth.” And for the rest, well, I have to just bite my tongue when they start their bargaining with, “Well, I have $xx in it…”
Regardless of the price, preserve the memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine