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10 Questions with Stephen Rogers

Talking about collecting 19th Century US militaria

 Stephen Rogers (right) has been actively dealing in 19th Century militaria and Americana for the past 25 years. He is seen here with another icon of the collecting world, Dan Griffin.

Stephen Rogers (right) has been actively dealing in 19th Century militaria and Americana for the past 25 years. He is seen here with another icon of the collecting world, Dan Griffin.

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 Stephen “Steve” Rogers. Many will recognize his name as one of the leading dealers in early US militaria through the American Civil War.

Steve has collected antique military items and Americana for more than forty years. He has actively bought and sold as a dealer for more than twenty-five. While Steve concentrates on American Civil War material, he does carry variety of antique arms and related material, ranging from the Revolutionary War through WWII.With an eye for the obscure and rare, he will often have material ranging from ethnographic weapons to European armor. In the Americana arena, he carries material from folk art to interesting daguerreotypes.

Because Steve possesses such a diverse and specialized background, we are pleased to offer his response to our “10 Questions Collecting 19th Century US Material through the American Civil War.

Military Trader: Collecting early 19th Century US militaria is a very specialized field. How would you characterize the collector who focuses on this area? How has that person’s collecting habits changed in the last thirty years? 

Steve Rogers: Like all militaria collectors, they are passionate about history and preserving artifacts and their stories for future generations. Because we’re dealing with older pieces, there is a greater chance the history has become separated from the object whether it is thehistory of the maker or the person who carried it. So,collectors of this period have to be especially attuned to research.

The great thing is that with more source material available every day on the internet from old newspapers, hard-to-find books, genealogical information, and service records. There is a lot more to be discovered now about each piece — and in a lot less time. I think that has kept the market interesting as well as fueling continued interest.

It’s also always been a field where history and art, or at least visual appeal, intersect. Early uniforms, flags, painted drums, and equipment were all pretty colorful and often overlap with the folk art market.

That market used to drive the pricing more than it does now, which is a good thing for the militaria collector. Prices have moderated on some very nice material. Regular army material may not be quite as flashy as militia gear, where the visual appeal and spectacle is paramount, but it was still an age of colorful uniforms and equipment.

That aesthetic aspect to collecting the period holds true for arms as well as general militaria. Industrialization comes into play as the period moves on, but there is still a lot of craftsmanship in the forms of the weapons and in their decoration, even in strictly martial arms.

Every collector has to develop his own interest and taste, of course. Early Federal period iron-hilted sabers are not everyone’s idea of beautiful. But, as an expression of early Republican simplicity, they have a strong historical appeal and cultural association.

I like it all and would have a hard time focusing on just one area as a collector. Over the past thirty years — and even more within the past twenty — I have seen increasing specialization among collectors in the field. To some degree that’s a function of price: You just can’t collect everything 18th century or early 19th century.

More influential is the tremendous increase in information that is available. It used to be that if you collected Revolutionary War or War of 1812, you bought things that were “of the period,” and that was good enough, or as close as you could get. Now there are books, journal articles, online forums, etc., on everything from buttons to firearms that enable collectors to really know whether a certain piece actually is from the period they want to collect. The result is that some markets have gotten narrower, but they get pretty deep, in terms of prices, very fast.

People now know what a War of 1812 cap plate looks like and how tell it from a later plate, or what qualifies as a real Revolutionary War cartridge box. Some generic “of the period” items are still being sold with optimistic labels, but they have not advanced much in price. Collectors have come to appreciate the true rarity of some early pieces, and the pricing now shows it.

There has always been something of a divide between collectors of guns and swords of the period, and those collecting other artifacts, but both sections of the market are now more focused. The pendulum swings back and forth, of course, but arms collectors also seem to be concentrating again on US martial single shot pistols or Starr sabers, or arms just from the Harpers Ferry Armory or the Virginia Manufactory. Likewise, militaria collectors will focus on belt plates, hat insignia, or buttons to exclusion of some other categories. At the same time, that specialization has opened up newer avenues to building a collection. Excavated material, buttons and belt plates especially, has a new-found respectability because collectors can finally see just how scarce some of that material is in any condition.

That having been said, collecting should always be fun. Forget about trends and follow your own interests.

 This New York militia dragoon helmet ca. 1840 was preserved with its original 1842 bill of sale made out to A.M. Davis by H.J. Storms of New York City, the well known military goods dealer and father of Civil War contractor C.S. Storms.

This New York militia dragoon helmet ca. 1840 was preserved with its original 1842 bill of sale made out to A.M. Davis by H.J. Storms of New York City, the well known military goods dealer and father of Civil War contractor C.S. Storms.

Military Trader: One of the most common statements I hear at shows (especially among WWI collectors) is, “I used to collect Civil War, but it has become too expensive.” How would you advise a new collector to approach this facet of militaria collecting?”

Steve Rogers: I don’t think that’s as true as it once was. World War II bayonets can be just as expensive as their Civil War ancestors. The same thing applies to Garands or Mausers that have not been messed with or updated.

Collectors buying WWI air-related material, Marine Corps groupings, tank-related material, etc., are on some serious ground, and once you move into WWII pieces like German helmets, paratroop related material, German daggers, and lots of other categories, Civil War material can look positively cheap.

Prices in Civil War material took a hit in 2001 and again in 2007. While there are generational and cultural shifts, I see some new collectors coming in because it’s within reach. Some older collectors are reappearing with new interest in fields that earlier seemed too expensive. Some of the older photography collectors, for instance, have started buying artifacts. They probably won’t be collecting variations of gear or uniforms across the board, but they are comfortable buying selectively in new areas.

The greater problem I see for a new collector is not the price, but that with the shift away from shows to online venues and to auctions, the mentoring that used to take place among dealers and collectors is no longer taking place.

Online, all information seems equal. There is no way to tell who is dispensing the information, what their base of knowledge is or what their motives are. New collectors often think they have become wired-in to a worldwide network and can access all the information they need through Google, but in many cases they don’t know what they don’t know, and are far more isolated now than used to be the case. This applies to more than just Civil War and early material, of course.

 A scarce Revolutionary War British pistol that Steve sold was in original, untouched condition. The flintlock pistol was likely one of those made up of old land service pistol stocks and 12-inch barrels but fitted with newer locks and sent over here in 1781 to arm loyalist cavalry in the south.

A scarce Revolutionary War British pistol that Steve sold was in original, untouched condition. The flintlock pistol was likely one of those made up of old land service pistol stocks and 12-inch barrels but fitted with newer locks and sent over here in 1781 to arm loyalist cavalry in the south.

I like the ease of sitting at the computer as much as anyone and driving for hours to get to a show is nobody’s idea of a good time, but it gets you the hands-on experience with the artifacts and the opportunity to talk to knowledgeable collectors and dealers. That face-to-face interaction builds up a level of trust so that you can figure out what’s what with the material and who you could trust among sellers. It means lots of time in the trenches, so to speak, but there is no substitute for it.

We used to talk about, “gun show wisdom,” generally accepted, but mistaken, theories about stuff that might eventually get corrected in one of the few journals that were available or by a new reference book or get discussed among collectors at a show. Now old theories and new ones get spread instantaneously to a world wide audience by a new collector who just heard some story and thinks he is aiding the uninformed. Someone might correct the misunderstanding, but a month later the same topic will come up again. It’s a mistake for a collector to assume he can find out anything he needs to know through Google.

There are a number of online forums that are worth keeping up with like the US Militaria Forum, Wehr-macht Awards, etc., and magazines like Military Trader, the Journal of the Company of Military Historians, and North South Trader. A good reference library is key.

Online, the collector has to have the patience to work through old discussion threads and there can be literally too much information out there even to sort through, much less absorb. The best forums have active moderators to keep the discussion on topic and steer discussions to relevant older threads.

You can’t argue against the internet as the major venue for selling material, and many new collectors probably don’t remember a time when it was not. Yet,many seem unaware of its traps.

It’s not news that online auction venues are flooded with fakes. By the sheer volume of some of these things, they acquire respectability. A collector can be lured into thinking, “there are so many of these widgets being sold and vouched for by so many sellers, that they have to be real.”

Civil War badges and insignia are good examples. I once counted 28 corps badges offered on one day as original Civil War items on one online auction venue (you can guess which). Of these, 26 were fake, and the remaining two were old badges, but generic designs and not necessarily military. The fakers have been busy for decades, but they now have a worldwide audience, and are busily selling everything from bogus brass insignia to photographs, to cartridges.

Most pernicious are the sellers who are inventing collections to a give a provenance to their wares, offering bogus letters from supposed family members selling an ancestor’s sword, etc. It really is a confidence game at that point. If you pay attention, you can track these people over time and see the method at work.

Selling is apparently good, because some of them have had to retroactively enlarge the old collection they recently got in to order to meet demand, or are continually inventing new collections, usually announced in a matter of fact way, like the “John Jones collection,” just to put the new collector on the defensive because he’s never heard of it. Online selling opened up a new world for these people, and they don’t have to worry about too many collectors at a show comparing notes.

New collectors sometimes feel safer buying from a brick-and-mortar auction company, but few auctioneers care enough or can afford to hire someone who knows the material to vet it. Some auctioneers, like some new collectors, literally don’t know what they don’t know. Others apparently have done the math and are willing to accept a high return rate. Many of those companies now simply use multiple auction platforms to advertise their goods. They attach some photos and put some key words in the titles, and their theory is that if a piece is out there long enough, on enough sites, enough people will see it, and it will bring a strong price — and I am not sure they’re wrong.

For collectors it’s another matter. They may find out years later, or at least beyond the return-privilege date, that their prize has a problem. Others may never find out, which is, I suppose, a happy outcome for the auctioneer and consignor, and two of three isn’t bad.

All of that applies to other fields of militaria collecting, of course, not just Civil War or early material. In fact, collectors seeking that material may have it a bit easier since with older material you can judge the age a bit better. When you have WWII objects manufactured out of the same material on the same machines, it gets very difficult very fast. Once you learn some of the tricks with Civil War material, you can begin to sort out a lot of material even by photographs.

Military Trader: Recently, you handled a large collection that contained a large amount of War of 1812 material. We would like to ask about that experience. First, tell us about the collection, how it was assembled and when, and how you finally became the agent to disperse it into the collecting stream. Second, tell us about your expectations for the disbursement of collection and what the reality was.

Steve Rogers: The 1812 collection was wonderful, but I was actually somewhat peripheral in dispersing it. It consisted largely of hat plates and belt plates covering the period from about 1795 to 1850. Many of the pieces originally came from the Duncan Campbell collection when it was sent to auction some years ago.

The collector who assembled this collection passed away, and it was purchased from the family in its entirety passed through the hands of a couple of dealers,and ended up with Dan Griffin. I was ultimately brought in to give some advice and helped out with some of the selling. There was a little weeding out to be done, but not much.

It was an exciting collection to deal with. I would have liked to buy it myself. In many cases these were not just rare items, “like those in the book,” they were the ones in the book, and if not the only ones out there, some were pretty close to that.

Many represented that intersection of history and art we talked about a moment ago. In this case, it was the art of die-sinking and engraving.

For buyers, it really was a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire some of these pieces. The prices set were realistic, and both collectors and dealers responded. A few were disappointed not to have been given first shot, but you can’t offer that to everyone. You need to avoid the appearance of offering a collection that has been “cherry picked,” or that you are playing favorites.

The marketing was a real contrast to the online selling we were just talking about. It was decided to put it all out at a show. This was risky, you never know who will be there or what the buying mood will be, but for a time it was the “roaring nineties” again. You knew that if you did not pick up a piece, the guy standing over your shoulder was going to. There was no time for a potential buyer to hem and haw. A number of things changed hands again soon after. That was a testimony to the rarity and quality of the pieces, but also to the realistic initial prices.

Military Trader: How can a person with a limited collecting budget (say, $5,000 per year) satisfactorily collect pre-Civil War militaria? What advice would you give to that person?

Steve Rogers: Pre-Civil War militia material is still very affordable. There is a wide variety of colorful uniforms, headgear, accoutrements, insignia, helmet and belt plates, buttons, painted knapsacks, canteens, drums, etc. And, once you add guns and swords into the mix, there is a lot to choose from.

As with anything, it’s a matter of focus, discipline and personal taste, but you can put together a visually exciting collection that speaks to the social history of the nation and you can have fun doing it. Collectors will also be happy to find out that much of it is pretty enough that they might even be permitted to display it outside the collection room.

Once you start talking about regular army material, or things associated with wartime field service, of course, the equation changes. Arms and some equipment are obtainable, but uniforms and headgear are quite rare. Even hat plates and belt plates of the regular army are a very different matter and priced accordingly.

Historically identified pieces can quickly escalate in price, things identified with the westward expansion of the U.S. are hot, so are signed documents, top shelf daguerreotypes, etc. You begin to get overlaps with western Americana and other collecting fields as well, so the price can be driven from many sides. At that point, discipline comes in, and you are going to have to pick and choose.

Many collectors still like quantity, so they will focus on a category like military buttons. That’s not to downplay that field and does not mean there are not some very pricey buttons out there, but the field presents an opportunity to collect broadly with some real appreciation of history, art, and visual appeal.

The other way to go is to develop a real appreciation of the individual object. You might only buy one or two good guns or swords in a year for that money, but if your focus is a particular maker or model you can take the time to find the right piece in the best condition at the right price and use the down time in the search to learn everything you can about it. That can give you a real advantage even over a well-heeled rival and make the acquisition process a lot easier when you do find the right piece.

I also see some collectors buying broadly, but with individual objects in mind. They want only one militia shako in the collection and one musket, etc. It imposes a discipline to their collecting, but provides a goal at the same time.

In those collections, condition usually holds sway, but some few collectors go the other way entirely. One of the most interesting collections I had a chance to look at recently was a pure study collection, mainly of accoutrements. Condition was not the prime factor, so the costs were not high. The point of the collection was what the objects told you about their manufacturing processes, changes in design or differences in method among makers. There were lots and lots of variations and by looking them over carefully you could develop a good sense of which item was the earlier or the rarer, and that would be a great advantage if you encountered two similar pieces in very good condition elsewhere.

The greatest danger for any collector with a limited budget, and most of us are limited to some extent, is the same as for the new collector: buying something that you don’t want — that regular army hat plate that is really a militia plate or a piece of headgear that is fake, or losing patience and buying something that is setting off all sorts of alarm bells, but you buy it nevertheless because you have not bought anything in a while.

That’s a question of discipline and focus, again, but having a good reference library on your subject is invaluable. We sometimes tend to skimp on that when on a tight budget, but it can save you lots of money on that piece you bought that looked so much like the 1813 pattern but turned out to be the 1816 pattern. Keep in mind, of course, that books will only carry you so far. There is no substitute for actually getting out to some of the shows and seeing what’s out there, and how real pieces look and feel.

Military Trader: The American Civil War has been the mainstay of 19th Century US militaria. But, values seem to have been falling since the Great Recession. How does that reflect interest in Civil War as an area for collecting?

Steve Rogers: The market took a couple of hits, but the market for antiques in general dropped and there was no reason for Civil War material to be exempt. Civil War stuff was very strong in the 1990s, but so was everything else. It’s amusing, but pointless to discuss causes.

A friend of mine remarked, “they gave me three hundred channels on my television and the internet, but did not add any hours to the day.” I think that as much as anything explains the decline in many hobbies and collecting fields.

I do think, however, that prices have stabilized in the Civil War market, but it’s harder to get a feeling for it because the market is now so spread out. When you had just a few shows and dealer catalogues it was easier to grasp. Now you have online dealers, online auction houses, private sellers on eBay and the like, so it is sometimes tough to tell what the real pricing of something is anymore, and if there really are trends.

Also, I’d say that just because many prices declined is not the same thing as saying interest in Civil War material has declined. I think it will always be the mainstay of 19th century American militaria. It’s the premier intersection of history, drama, romance, politics, visual and artistic appeal — you name it, and the fact that prices fell in many categories makes it possible for collectors to get back in or try it in the first place.

As I indicated earlier, particularly with the price rise in other militaria, there are some good opportunities in Civil War material: Equipment and uniform cloth are reasonable again. Long arms and bayonets are available as well. Bummer caps and cavalry shell jackets have held their own, but some officer’s material is again within reach of the younger collector. I’m also pleased to see some familiar faces reappearing and buying again, many times in different areas than before. Collectors who specialized in photography twenty years ago can afford that Hardee hat or Sharps carbine that was once out of reach.

I reduced my inventory dramatically several years ago to give myself more flexibility in keeping up with the market, but there is no out-guessing it. The market, or segments of it, can go up and down with the arrival and departure of strong buyers, both individuals and institutions, or with a sudden surges in popular interest from a new television series or movie.

Maybe the next rise will be due to a video game. I’ve never used “investment” as part of a sales pitch or marketing technique. I want the collector to buy something because they like it, they’re interested in it, or even passionate about it. The less I have to “sell a piece” to a customer, the better.

Military Trader: What areas of US 19th Century Militaria collecting are particularly “hot” today? What is driving the interest? Is it sustainable for the next 10-15 years?

Steve Rogers: Civil War material still has the broadest appeal, but I see a lot more interest in the period of the frontier army from 1866 to 1898 than there used to be. It has a lot of color and romantic appeal, and there is a lot of variation in uniforms, equipment and arms for collectors to pursue.

As with anything a collector seeks, it has to be scarce enough to pose a challenge, but there has to be enough of it to actually put together a collection, and with a period that broad there are a lot of opportunities. It’s also possible to do it without specializing all that much. I see some collectors who focus on cavalry, for instance, but a lot more who buy broadly in arms, accouterments, uniforms, and gear of that era.

In Civil War material, right now photography is strong. I suppose that’s because we are now so visually oriented, spending so much time staring at computer and television screens. There is also the perception that in buying a photograph on the basis of a photo online you are going to get what you see. That’s not always the case, of course, but it seems a straight-forward equation. It is probably an indicator of how popular that market is that there is even more fakery going on in it than there used to be.

There are fewer collectors right now chasing specific regiments, but material related to units like the Iron Brigade is tough to find and in high demand. The same thing with pieces related to famous battles, like Antietam and Gettysburg, or to famous generals.

Antique firearms are still very strong. There are always trends, of course. Carbines may be hot for a while, and you can’t keep a specific model on the table (like a Spencer). Then, suddenly, it will be Sharps, or the market shifts to Colt revolvers. Condition is usually paramount, but there is a buyer at almost every level.

Sometimes it depends on the venue. A low or midrange piece will often do far better at a small auction than at a show or a dealer website. When we are talking about a recognizable Civil War firearm like a Springfield rifle musket, that actually says something about the Civil War’s broad and lasting appeal.

Confederate material is still strong. The rule of thumb used to be that you could figure it at five times the value of a comparable Federal piece. That probably still holds, but high-condition and well-provenanced material is the strongest, whether it is coming from a family or a famous collection.

There is more information out there now on what patterns of D-guard knives, holsters, or cartridge boxes were made at what arsenals, etc., and those have escalated in price quite a bit, much like the no-doubt-about-it Revolutionary War or War of 1812 material. Something that just looks crude enough to be Confederate will no longer find a ready buyer. Flags and southern made firearms still do well. I have handled some great Confederate stuff, but won’t pretend to be the foremost dealer in it, so it’s perhaps a question for someone else.

As for whether the market for 19th century US militaria sustainable, I’m always a little leery of importing big business terms like sustainability into an antiques or collectors market that is really based on passion. It’s sustainable if demand continues to outstrip supply. I wish I knew how to create that demand. It’s possible to fuel it and maintain it by educating customers about the material and conveying what got us interested in it in the first place. It’s possible to sustain it by stressing the fellowship of the collecting community and encouraging new collectors to participate and make contact with other collectors. That’s one reason I think the Military Trader is a great idea. It has a broad focus, but there are some top notch specialty articles in every issue.

Military Trader: Your web site states that your newsletter is your main selling tool. Tell us about your strategy for a) acquiring new material and b), making it available to your customers. Do you ever have “sales” to clear out inventory?

Steve Rogers: I still prefer to buy things face-to-face either at shows or from a collection, and I like dealing best with an experienced seller. There is less ego involved, fewer unrealistic expectations in pricing, and the owner usually really does want to sell the piece.

It is always fun to sneak up on something at a show that’s a sleeper. It keeps things interesting and sometimes exciting, but it is not a viable business model.

I handle more things on consignment than I used to. That eases cash flow and allows for time to find a buyer, but the piece still has to be realistically priced for the next owner.

Auctions are harder to buy at now because even small auction houses are using several online bidding platforms to expose their material. They may not know what they have or what it’s worth, but they figure if they put it out long enough in enough venues they will get a good price for it, and I’m not sure they’re wrong. It used to be that expertise enabled you to buy well on the floor. Now it more often helps you avoid mistakes. Few auction houses are able or willing to adequately vet material that comes up for sale, which is a pitfall for the new or inexperienced collector, but it’s opened more opportunities to act as a buyer’s agent or consultant even if I personally buy fewer pieces for inventory.

As for methods of selling, I try to mix it up as much as possible and I don’t think you can ignore any venue. For a unique item or something with real historical significance I like the email newsletter format since it lets me spend time explaining a piece or laying out its history. It also has the practical effect of bringing a potential buyer to a decision: the piece is fresh, it’s available right now, and other people are looking at it right now, too. At the same time, you can’t count on every potential customer getting or opening your email and it’s vital to get in front of people who might not otherwise know what you have to offer, so putting a piece up on the website or even running it on eBay or one of the other online venues has to be part of the mix. I still like selling directly at shows the best.

I don’t run sales per se, because I’m not dealing in quantities of material large enough to justify a 10% mark-down across the board. I will knock down the price on something if I have had it for a while, but it varies with the piece: What I paid for it, how long I have had it, and how much exposure it has had.

To get pieces in front of new people or just for variety I might pull things off the site and run them on Ebay or, if tired of them, send them off to a brick-and-mortar auction. In all those cases, I take a hit in paying fees, but there is always a cost of doing business. If it comes to taking a loss on something, better a quick loss than a slow loss, and better to sell it directly and at least make a friend of a buyer.

Military Trader: We know you are a collector at heart — and one of the hobby’s great veterans. First, tell us about what you currently collect.Then, tell us about one of your “favorite finds” during your hobby career.

Steve Rogers: Thanks for the compliment. When I went full time as a dealer, I decided to keep my own collecting in check. From a purely business point of view, cash-flow is crucial. I also don’t want to be in competition with my customers. The consolation is that I get to handle a wide variety of merchandise and I like learning about new fields and researching material that comes in. That’s one of the great things about the hobby and the business- there’s always something new and interesting coming around the corner, something to learn about.

I sometimes think I am really a book collector. The objects come and go, the reference books I bought to learn about them stay on the shelf.

The one collection I allow myself has been Civil War material related to the 64th New York. They were a good combat unit and later appointed a regimental historian who gathered letters, diaries, reminiscences and photographs, but never published the history. I reassembled parts of his estate and added to his files. I’ve collected some artifacts related to them, but I’ve tried to focus on things that would help the history. I have sold off parts of the collection over the years, but kept copies of the manuscript material in hopes of finishing the regimental history some day.

They took part in some very significant actions and there is very interesting unpublished information in there. Just as interesting as their combat record is their internal political wrangling both during and after the war, something that was disguised or suppressed in most regimental histories. It adds a very human aspect to their history.

As for favorite finds, the most recent was a painted and identified French and Indian War officer’s campaign chest. It came out of a D.A.R. chapter with a catalogue index card written by someone recalling what the donor had told them about it. It was filled with accurate individual details that had been assembled into a completely nonsensical history. It took a week of sleepless nights to straighten it all out, but it worked out beautifully with a rock-solid line of descent of the chest from the officer to the donor and enabled me to reconnect his wartime biography with his postwar and Revolutionary War biography.

Until that chest came out, he had led one life as an officer in Montgomery’s Highlanders, and another as a retired British officer from an undetermined regiment living on half-pay in upstate New York who was trying to mind his own business during the Revolution. It was a beautiful piece with a lot of history to it, and best of all, it involved a lot of research and detective work that panned out. I like reuniting an object with its history, but in some cases, like the campaign chest, the object enables you to stitch back together pieces of a history that no one knows actually belong together.

 Steve says he is seeing more interest in Indian War and Spanish American material. He sold this rare 1885 Indian War light artillery bugler’s coat. There were only ten batteries of US light or field artillery from 1866 to 1898 and their uniforms are correspondingly scarce. The other batteries in the five regiments of US artillery authorized during the period were assigned to coast artillery. Their coats followed the foot patterns with long individual plackets on the tails. Light artillery coats, like this one, followed the mounted pattern with a wide W-shaped placket on the tails.

Steve says he is seeing more interest in Indian War and Spanish American material. He sold this rare 1885 Indian War light artillery bugler’s coat. There were only ten batteries of US light or field artillery from 1866 to 1898 and their uniforms are correspondingly scarce. The other batteries in the five regiments of US artillery authorized during the period were assigned to coast artillery. Their coats followed the foot patterns with long individual plackets on the tails. Light artillery coats, like this one, followed the mounted pattern with a wide W-shaped placket on the tails.

Military Trader: Collecting early material must present some difficult preservation challenges. Are there some types or categories of militaria that you typically avoid because of preservation challenges? What special actions have you taken to ensure the longevity of the material you handle or keep in your own collection?

Steve Rogers: One advantage of dealing with early material is that if it is going to “go,” it probably has already gone. But, you do run into some fragile things.

Any early cloth needs special handling and care. Early flags are out there and present a challenge — silk flags in particular. I would prefer to get them to a competent conservator as fast as possible. Keeping them stable in the meantime is biggest problem. Then the issue becomes how to mount and display them. Hauling around one fully framed six-by-six foot battle flag was enough for me. I still like them, but you have to be practical. It also helps to have some customers with wall space.

I am also a sucker for painted drums, militia knapsacks, canteens and the like, but anything with a painted surface has to be handled carefully.

In terms of what the collector will most often encounter, leather gear would probably be the most fragile category. The usual rule of thumb, as with any antique, is to do as little to it as possible. Controlling its environment, light, heat, and humidity, are key, and the less handling the better.

Occasionally, I will see a piece that is too far gone, but it’s still a battle fighting the urge to buy it and try to rescue it. I try to offer material untouched, but on occasion I do a repair. Sometimes it’s for cosmetic reasons. Often it’s to prevent further damage.

When material is coming out of a collection you are at the mercy of the collector and his sources. Years ago, I was in a collection room where every piece of Civil War leather gear had been visited by a tin of black shoe polish. Apart from what damage it might have done, they looked so uniform and shiny from one end of the shelf to the other that it was hard tell one piece from another.

I still get offered gear from time to time that has been soaked in Neats Foot Oil. That is a deal that is very easy to pass on!

Paper is, by nature, fragile, but most collectors are pretty savvy about how to care for documents and letters. I keep supply of acid-free folders and sleeves on hand, but in many cases the collector really wants it just as you found it, in the old tin box or whatever.

In other cases, you need to go through a diary or letter grouping to determine a value. It’s a time consuming process since it has be handled carefully. I try to transcribe things fully both as a sales technique and to cut down on future handling, but you can only take care of it while it’s in your hands.

Guns and swords are more resilient, but need to be wiped down after handling. We sometimes forget that a casual visitor does not know about handling a musket or sword, or we get careless.

I still shudder when I see an experienced collector draw a sword from a leather scabbard without holding the tip toward the floor. I watch the scabbard droop slightly and wait to see the point go right through it when the guy sheathes it again. Harold Peterson wrote an article years ago called, “Manners in the Gun Room.” I think it bears reprinting.

Military Trader: And finally, the question we all want to ask the experienced veteran collectors, such as yourself, “How will early US militaria collecting change over the next ten years?”

Steve Rogers: I think the focus will continue to be on things with strong visual appeal. Downsizing and smaller living spaces seems to be the current mantra among the younger set, so we might forecast an increasing emphasis on individual objects rather than quantity, or literally, on smaller objects.

I’d like to think that in the information age, history might make a comeback in deciding what to acquire since the source material is so much easier to access. There could be a reaction against technology, in a way, by a renewed appreciation of craftsmanship in early arms, insignia, etc.

It will be a challenge to keep up with it, no matter what happens, but I can’t think of anything more fascinating.

We are honored to interview and report on prominent players in our hobby. To learn more about Steve Roger’s business or to sign up for his newsletter, contact: Steve Rogers Antique Military Arms & Americana, P.O. Box 6595, Ithaca, NY 14851; phone: (607) 273-0271; web site: 

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