As I tend to do, I have been “ruminating” a lot about our hobby lately. Pandemic withstanding, last year had a huge impact. I have been wondering how it will change the hobby, and the way each of us look at it. And I don’t mean on a conscious level — I think anyone reading this will agree our collective goal is to protect history and not sanitize it. What I am concerned about is how it has changed each of us deeply, at the core. What am I talking about? Read on.
FALL IS AUCTION SEASON
In the militaria hobby, autumn tends to be auction season. Many large and small purely military relic auctions take place between August right up through the December holidays. From a collecting point of view, it is either like a smorgasbord — if your pockets are full of cash — or a tempting, royal buffet, out-of-reach if your pockets are empty.
I probably fall somewhere between the smorgasbord and the royal buffet. My pockets hold enough for a single good, solid meal of militaria. So, I spend my evenings scrolling through online auctions looking for that one special relic on which I can go “all in.”
It was while I was recently scrolling, when I experienced a personal contradiction causing me to ultimately wonder how others might have changed over the past year or so. To back up a bit, let me be straight-forward: If I see an identified Confederate slouch hat, I see it for the historic representation of the Civil War that it is. The same goes for a Hitler Youth dagger. Owning either does not reflect any personal political or social value I may have. They simply are artifacts that help me put history into a tangible context.
So back to the scrolling through the auctions. I was thoroughly enjoying the offerings of the December 4 auction of our friends and good advertiser, Milestone Auctions of Willoughby, Ohio. I really like their auctions…they seem to be filled with offerings that they know and understand. Their descriptions are thorough, photography honest, and the quality of items is high. The auctions are even organized in a way that is easy to get to what you want, following a basic path of: Federal Period / Civil War, Indian Wars / WWI / WWII / Vietnam all followed by miscellaneous materials.
While thumbing my way through the auction, I searched for something to add to my collection. I enjoyed the Civil War material but no 1846 or 1847-dated Mississippi Rifle for me to bid on. I went through the WWI material. No Tank Corps groupings or Belgian material for me to bid on. Up through US WWII, I enjoyed the offerings, and went right into WWII German stuff. Wow! Some good stuff…SS helmets, Panzer wrap arounds, numbered badges — all of the material that would cause any serious WWII collector to salivate! But alas, no Belgian or unusual Latvian SS material for me to bid on.
So, I glanced through the Vietnam stuff. Again, really neat things, but I don’t know this material. While I would love a legit Special Forces beret, I am smart enough to recognize I don’t know anything about them. That’s a dangerous combo! So, on I scrolled.
And then, I encountered my paradoxical moment. Remember, I had just spent probably 30 minutes studying Confederate, Imperial German, and Third Reich material, just looking at all the neat relics and mentally posing the items in my collection in my office. No second guessing my motives. Just cool relics representing different aspects of history.
But just then, I gasped. Milestone was offering Ku Klux Klan material. While an argument can be made that KKK stuff isn’t “militaria,” that wasn’t what gave me pause. I admit, my reaction was, “that shouldn’t be offered.”
Where did that come from? I have always stood by the side of relics representing history. Relics don’t have special powers. People assign those to them. To me, relics are the conduits that allow us to discover the past — and to make sense of it.
But now, as I stared at Lot 717, I felt appalled.
And at that moment, I realized I had become a hypocrite.
The KKK represents a monumental chapter in the United States' evolving history. If the materials are all destroyed, our chances of forgetting that chapter become greater.
Artifacts are necessary, tangible items for us to spark introspection, conversation, and interpretation. Without them, it just all so much chatter and blather.
A robed mannequin on robed horseback is going to make me think a lot more than just telling me, “In the reconstruction era, band marauders traversed the South…”. Artifacts affect us to our core.
I suspect, all of the political unrest of 2020 had sunk into my psyche, whether I agreed with it or not. I do believe I came through the year with a deeper understanding and appreciation of various viewpoints.
However, I admit that it is time for me to “recalibrate my historical barometer.” I have spent a lifetime saying that “artifacts MATTER to history.” I don’t intend to change that opinion now.
I might not like KKK stuff on auction sites, but I don’t think they should be restricted. I have no desire to fill my office with the material, but I am glad there are collectors, scholars, and historians who ARE committed to preserving artifacts that will help all of us to understand, contextualize, and learn from history.
Preserve the Memories,
Editor, Military Trader & Military Vehicles Magazine
PS: To my friends at Milestone: I hope you don’t mind me using you as an honest example. I didn’t want to take the aloof approach of “some unnamed auction…,” but rather, wanted to be forthright and honest in the description of my personal conflict. I love you folks and hope to keep bidding on stuff for years to come!
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