Bill Combs speaks on the hobby’s biggest shift in 2015
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 Bill Combs. Most will recognize him as President of the Ohio Valley Military Society (OVMS). In addition, he operates a militaria business, AGMOhio, specializing in Spanish American War, WWI, and Americana. Bill has been a collector of militaria since 1966. Though Bill offers a wide range of military relics, he is best-known for his expertise on WWI European and 19th Century Spanish militaria.
In 2004, he was elected to be President of the OVMS. With more than 45 years experience in buying, selling, trading, and collecting, he has a very good sense of the ebs and flows of the hobby. He has utilized this first-person knowledge in guiding the OVMS to new heights, including the recent acquisition of the 30-year MAX Show. We are pleased to offer his response to our “10 Questions on about the MAX Show Acquisition.”
1 Military Trader: Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with us. It doesn’t seem like nearly three decades have passed since we attended one of the early MAX Shows together on Kings Highway in St. Louis. How long ago did you first consider the possibility of the OVMS acquiring the MAX Show, and what did you do to put that idea into motion?
Bill Combs: For many years, the hobby was well-served by a number of small, regional shows and three large “major event” type shows: The MAX, the Show-of-Shows, and the Great Western. A number of the professional dealers and advanced collectors attended all of these; considering each a vital component of the collecting community - sort of the ‘three legs’ of the stool analogy. When the Great Western was arbitrarily ended, Bob Chatt was prepared to step up and provide the West Coast collectors with a new major militaria show, albeit without a firearms component.
Similarly, it has long been the position of the OVMS that should the MAX Show cease operations for whatever reason, our organization would step forward to ensure the continued presence of a large internationally-attended show in the east. Though the rumor mill may say differently, as long as the MAX remained operational, there was no effort underway to actively seek its purchase. There was always a friendly rivalry, but the emphasis was clearly on “friendly.”
When we heard that the promoters may be considering the idea of selling after their 30th Anniversary show, our Chairman of the Board, Houston Coates, reached out to Mr. Wittmann and Mr. Johnson and began negotiations for the purchase of the show. A committee of the OVMS board met with Mr. Wittmann and Col. Johnson during the November 2014, Wilmington OVMS show, and reached an agreement that was then ratified by the board in a special meeting that Friday night.
2 Military Trader: While this appears to be a great acquisition for the OVMS, you are well aware that the hobby is slow to accept change. What would you say to those who are afraid this will change long-established traditions at the MAX Show?
Bill Combs: Though change is always uncomfortable, we find that our members really value consistency. As we incorporate the MAX into the OVMS family, there will be changes at both the MAX and the Show-of-Shows. It is our intention to combine the best features of both in order to improve both shows.
3 Military Trader: During the past 30 years, the MAX Show has occurred in a few different locations east of the Mississippi, most recently taking up residence in Monroeville, Penn. What can you tell us about plans for future MAX Show locations?
Bill Combs: Moving a show around on a regular schedule can be good for some shows under certain circumstances. More often than not, though, it causes lots of headaches for the promoters and interferes with the consistency that is valued by those who regularly attend the events. The Monroeville location benefits from all the accumulated nostalgia of past shows in that area.
Personally, when I think of “going to the MAX Show”, the image that pops into my head is a memory of the time (many years ago) when I purchased a mint, unissued Imperial German M15 Bluse out of a trunk in the parking lot of the old Expo Mart for $500! That is unlikely to ever happen again, but when I think of the MAX and Monroeville, such happy deals from past events are one of the reasons why I am glad that it is back in that area.
As a show promoter, though, I can tell you that for these large international events, there is a special “sweet spot” that a show must achieve to be successful. It must be large enough to require several days’ attendance by serious collectors in order to thoroughly shop the show. It must also be of sufficient size that there will still be plenty of “bargains” and special things left to be discovered by those who can’t get to the show until Saturday morning. Most importantly, it needs to encompass many different areas of interest within the overall hobby of historic arms and militaria. If you can meet those three goals, you will have a healthy, successful show.
Whether or not those goals can be met in the current facility in Monroeville remains to be seen. My personal belief is that the hall is simply not large enough. While a future move is possible, there are currently no definite plans in the works for any specific location.
4 Military Trader: The OVMS has grown from a regional club to an international organization. Now, it owns a show based in Pennsylvania in addition to shows in Wilmington, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. Does the name of the club hold it back from larger, non-regional membership?
Bill Combs: It truly is an international organization now, and we are quite proud of that fact. You’re right - the name does not reflect that, but this has certainly not deterred any of our overseas friends from joining and participating in our events. The OVMS brand has been quite successful so far, and though it is a fair question, there are no plans currently before the board to change it.
5 Military Trader: How does this acquisition impact OVMS members?
Bill Combs: The primary concern of the OVMS is providing a venue for the membership to buy, sell, and trade historic arms and militaria. For the membership, the acquisition of the MAX adds another major annual event type show that they can attend for FREE on their OVMS membership badge. Members who would have been waiting in line with the public to enter the MAX next year will, instead, be getting in early, just like they do at the SOS and OVMS Shows in Wilmington. The primary purpose in adding the MAX to the OVMS family of shows was to give substantially more value to the individual OVMS member.
6 Military Trader: How will the OVMS infuse the MAX Show with the public and club enthusiasm that is currently shown for the Show of Shows (SOS)?
Bill Combs: The membership seems to be handling that all on their own! While were working out the details on how many tables we can have at Monroeville, adjusting the prices down to match those of the SOS, etc., we were flooded with inquiries about purchasing tables and general attendance. Most of these folks indicated that for one reason or another, over the years, they had stopped attending the MAX, but now plan not to miss it since it is has become an OVMS event. This is one of the reasons why we are (happily) concerned that the Monroeville facility may not be sufficient to meet the needs of the new OVMS MAX.
7 Military Trader: Several times in this interview I note that you have referred to these events as “Historic Arms & Militaria” shows. Does this indicate a shift in emphasis for the OVMS?
Bill Combs: Not a shift, per-se, but it certainly reflects areas within our hobby that we would like to develop at our shows. Attendance is very important, and the best shows will normally be attended by groups of people who can be there for very different reasons.
People who collect exclusively German daggers, Japanese swords, WWI French headgear, and US martial flintlock muskets may not even cross paths or stop at the same tables to browse, but ALL consider it essential to attend the Show-of-Shows. A very strong and diverse offering at the shows encourages strong attendance, and strong attendance makes a good show for everyone.
8 Military Trader: Speaking of diversity, when the acquisition of the MAX was first announced, members of US-themed collector forums celebrated the event, forecasting that the density of Third Reich relics would be thinned significantly. Are there any plans for clear-cutting the forest of swastikas that many have come to associate with the MAX Show?
Bill Combs: This has long been a criticism of the MAX, and it isn’t quite fair. I suspect it was driven largely by the fact that the two promoters are sellers of German daggers, but there is plenty of German militaria at both the SOS and the MAX. In fact, the dirty little secret of the MAX show is that for years, it was a great place to buy American and international militaria for prices that were generally under market value. As the market has changed and demand for US items has caught up to German items in many arenas, you are as likely to see a swarm of eager buyers at a table filled with premium US items as you are at a table populated by souvenirs from the defeated Third Reich.
We certainly want to see an increase of other areas of interest that are not currently as well-represented at the shows, but as a complementary addition to what is already there. Remember – one of the keys to a successful show is to have good attendance, and one of the most important factors in good attendance is a healthy diversity of militaria at the event. Just imagine if most of the folks who attend the SOS, the MAX, and the Baltimore Antique Arms show were to appear at the same show… it would be a home run for everyone involved.
9 Military Trader: Has a negative public perception of collectors of ‘Nazi Stuff’ impacted the planning and operation of OVMS events?
Bill Combs: Honestly, yes, it has. As collectors and students of history, even if we do not personally collect Third Reich relics, we tend to understand as a matter of course their context as war souvenirs, taken from the defeated enemy and brought home as trophies by the victors. We know that collectors of this material tend to be well-informed, serious students of history that celebrate the defeat of the enemy regimes, not their rise to power or actions during the war.
As show promoters, though, and frankly the collecting community at large, for our own good we must also understand that in the absence of education and guidance, the uninformed general public will not be as likely to reach that same conclusion. Successful shows in other countries have been completely canceled due to public outcry against what they perceive to be a ‘dangerous’ hobby indulged in by neo-fascists and madmen.
To ensure the continued success of the shows and of the hobby in general, we will be implementing new display guidelines (which were, in fact, designed by Tom Wittman and Tom Johnson of the MAX show for this very purpose.) We will ask our members to ensure that all items are displayed in such a manner as to make it clear that these are both trophies of war and historic artifacts, and are collected, studied, and traded within that context alone.
10 Military Trader: Does the OVMS have any active plans to attract new / young collectors to the shows?
Bill Combs: YES. One of the things that the MAX did particularly well was reaching out to the European collector community. We plan to continue those efforts, and combine them with some of our own plans currently in progress.
The shows in Europe tend to attract a younger crowd, and as they age and gain a bit more financial freedom, we want them to think of flying to the US to attend shows as a very normal thing to do. That’s one plan.. there are others in the works, and we’re always open to suggestions and new ideas.
To learn more about the Ohio Valley Military Society, including membership and show schedule, log onto www.sosovms.com; write: Ohio Valley Military Society, Inc., P.O. Box 30436 Cincinnati, Ohio 45230-0436; or call: 513-245-9540