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 Scott Kraska. Most will recognize his name as one of the leading dealers in Spanish American, WWI, WWII, and Vietnam militaria under the banner of “Bay State Militaria.” Some may not know, however, he is also a prolific author and collector, specializing in WWI American Volunteer Service material and Vietnam “Brown Water Navy” items.
Scott has been a collector of militaria since 1979. A 1990 graduate of Babson College, he spent years doing marketing for Computer Software companies, before founding Bay State Militaria in 2005, following his first love, buying, selling, collecting and displaying militaria.
According to Scott, Bay State adheres to some very simple rules: “1) We guarantee the authenticity of the items we sell, for life and 2) I do not offer anything on our web site, that I would not place in my own personal collection.”
August 1, 2015 marks Bay State’s 10th anniversary. Scott commented, “We hope you have been as pleased with us, as we have been, to work with all of you!”
Though Bay State offers a wide range of military relics, Scott is well-known for his expertise about the US World War material. With more than 34 years experience in buying, selling, trading, and collecting, he has a very good sense of the ebs and flows of the hobby. We are pleased to offer his response to our “10 Questions on collecting US WWI material.”
Military Trader: Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with us. I realize that you have your hand in all facets of militaria, but at shows, it seems WWI items occupy the centerpiece of your offerings. Tell us about your own collecting paths and how it has led to a WWI focus.
Scott Kraska: Well John, I started collecting Militaria at an early age. Civil War was my first love, but my meager allowance and odd job money really could not help me build any type of meaningful display. Out of frustration, I mentioned this to an old antique dealer, when I was just 17, and he showed me some WWI items he had in the shop. I asked the prices. US WWI Helmet, $8, WWI Gas Mask, $5 and a 37mm shell was $10. “Wow!” I thought, this is something interesting which is also affordable. Those 3 pieces started a 30+ year quest of study and acquisition that continues to this day. I am just as excited about new items today as I was when I was young.
Military Trader:You are well-known among WWI collectors as specializing in relics related to the American Volunteers Service. What is it about the volunteers that has attracted you?
Scott Kraska: I started off the same as most collectors. Trying to get one of each item to complete a Doughboy. Then on to Cavalry, Signal Corps, Marine Corps Aviation, Tank Corps, and the like.
What I found was, that I was most drawn to uniform groupings, and more specifically ones which were named and could be researched. I built a nice collection of 26th Division groupings and Marine Corps material. Then one day, I stopped at a tag sale and found a WWI American Field Service tunic with armband. It was in tired condition but at $40, how could you not buy it? This was about 1993.
I had heard of the Field Service and a friend had shown me a uniform. Of course at the time, my young mind could not appreciate anything from a unit whose members did not carry weapons!
I did some research and discovered that this ambulance driver had been in service for just a short time, when he was severely wounded while transporting wounded soldiers under fire and was not expected to live. The French presented him with their highest award for enlisted men, the Medale Militaire.
After that, I was hooked. Almost no one knew anything about the American Field Service back then, and for about 10 years, I found wonderful stuff with very little competition. Then people wised up. It’s very competitive these days.
Military Trader: Now to the business side of WWI collecting. It seems that US WWI collecting has caught on during the last decade. How would you characterize this aspect of the militaria hobby? Can you characterize a “typical” US WWI collector?
Scott Kraska:Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, WWI was considered an offbeat area of militaria that everyone stumbled into, but few people actually cared about. Most collectors wanted Revolutionary War through Civil War. The other big area was WWII German. WWII American material was considered one step above surplus!
WWI material was very cheap though out the 1980s, but around 1990 things started climbing. I would say most material appreciated about 10% per year during the 1990s.
With the creation and subsequent rise of eBayduring 1998-2004, things started to change with most common items stabilizing. Mid-tier items continued to grow at about 5% per year, but rare and exotic items started leapfrogging.
Every seller and buyer was using eBay to set prices, and the prices realized were going off the charts for a while. This continues, to some extent, to this day.
Military Trader:What areas of U.S. WWI collecting do you consider to be especially “hot” right now?
Scott Kraska: The items that are hot today, in many cases, are what you would expect. Aviation; Marine Corps; items from specific divisions especially famous units like the 2nd, units and made up of African Americans, Siberia, and North Russian Expeditionary Forces; medal and document groupings with valor awards and others; and all WWI German items.
Items which might not immediately jump to mind, are women’s material, WWI diaries and good letter groupings, and WWI photo albums (if captioned). Obviously, the American Volunteer movement items which would include items from Americans who volunteered to fight before the US entered the War in April 1917 like the American Field Service, Norton Harjes Ambulance Service, Lafayette Flying Corps, French Foreign Legion etc.
WWI British and Canadian items are doing very well, as is French material.
And what do you consider to be slow-starters or low interest items in US WWI collecting right now? Has this always been the case or is this part of a flow within the hobby?
Scott Kraska: WWI Veterans medals, uniforms and components are very inexpensive and are very affordable. There are also hundres of paper items and photography that is priced so that any budget could purchase them. Other items are, of course, damaged pieces. A uniform with some scattered mothing, a helmet which lacks a liner etc. I would only recommend these if a collector’s budget was inflexible.
Military Trader:Tell us about the level of international interesting in collecting US WWI relics.
Scott Kraska: There is a tremendous amount of collector interest in Europe. As a rule, there has always been a much higher interest in WWI, in Europe. This is due to the fact that most countries were involved from 1914-1918 instead of the much shorter,1917-1918 period, which most doughboys fought. Also the battlefields themselves are in Europe which adds greatly to collector following. The largest International consumers of WWI material are France, England, Belgium, Canada, and Germany.
Military Trader: There seems to be a lot of interest in painted WWI helmets growing in the past decade. What tips do you have for someone considering the WWI US helmet collecting?
Scott Kraska: The collecting of WWI helmets falls into several different areas: Pure, untouched helmets; ones with combat markings/field used-camo; and “folk Art” decorated helmets. With all of these, buy the best condition you can. The paint is the main factor.
When dealing with the first category the liner and chinstrap condition are almost as important, but with camo and painted helmets, the condition of the interior if far less important than the rarity of the markings, the scarcity of a particular pattern of camo, or the artistic quality of the “folk art”.
Military Trader:Two part maintenance question: How do you recommend a collector store / display their collection? And, what are your “go-to” references (print, online, other) that you would recommend to a person wanting to collect US WWI material?
Scott Kraska: That is a tough one to answer in such a short paragraph! Collectors should read my Military Trader article on protecting your collection from moths (available online at www.Baystatemilitaria.com. Our Facebook page also has a multi-part section recommending reference books for collectors that includes shots of the covers.
I won’t rehash the whole process but will give a few tips:
1) Be suspect of all wool material as a possible introduction of moths, eggs and larvae into your collection. It is like picking up a virus on your computer: Once it gets in, it creates huge problems. Freeze wool items for at least 1 week in a chest type freezer of up to 14 days conventional freezer, before you introduce it to your display area.
2) Segregate your uniforms and headgear. Keep them behind glass if possible. Or, if stored, individual bags within sealed boxes and uniforms in clear garment bags.
3) Direct sunlight will destroy your collection! You will not even notice it happening. Also long term exposure to bright fluorescent or incandescent bulbs will also damage your collection. When you are not in your collection area, make sure the lights are off, shades and curtains drawn.
4) Use traps to keep an eye on things. Place some moth traps in the room and if you live in an older home, a mouse trap would not hurt.
5) Paper goods should be stored in archival sleeves. These used to be a pain to find, but now are available at Office supply stores like Staples.
6) Keep collectibles stored at temperatures between 40 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, not more. Keep humidity levels between 50 and 65. Yes, buy a $10 thermometer with humidity indicator!! You have a responsibility to take care of these items. Basements and attics are out. If you have a finished basement, have everything at least 24 inches off the ground.
7) Lastly, inspect your collection every 30 days. Look in the bags, look under pocket flaps, the back side of things or insect damage, check leather for white mold etc. This stuff can sneak up on you quickly.
Military Trader:Our readers love stories about collectors’ “Favorite Finds.” Tell us about what you consider one of your favorite US WWI finds during the past 30 years.
Scott Kraska: This one is easy. My favorite grouping is a large trunk grouping from a 26th Division artillery officer, Captain Joseph C. Davis, 103rd Field Artillery. He was awarded the DSC and Croix de Guerre, but was then killed in July 1918.
The group was broken up at an estate sale in 1991, and I have been tracking the pieces for years. The uniforms and trunk went to one buyer, letters, books and photos to a second, and medals and insignia to a third. The paperwork and uniforms were reunited in 1993, but the medals did not rejoin the group until 2006. The documents have still not shown up but I am still looking. I am hoping someone out there still has them!
Military Trader: Finally, what impact on the hobby with the centennial of US entry into WWI and of the Armistice have on collecting US WWI material? How do you feel pricing will change over the next 10 years?
Scott Kraska:WWI material has always been underpriced, and to an extent, some of it still is. Europeans take WWI material out of the U.S. at a far greater rate than we pull it from Europe. They have been more savy than many U.S. collectors and some amazing groups have been shipped overseas, possibly never to return. This has only accelerated during the centennial.
If you wait too long, you may be shut out of some of the higher-end groupings. The prices of some of the rarer items may seem high, but the European customer who purchases them are only too glad to get it—while also paying expensive shipping and taxes that we don’t have to pay.
We are honored to interview and report on prominent players in our hobby. To learn more about Scott Kraska’s business, Bay State Militaria , or more importantly, to view his current offerings, log onto www.baystatemilitaria.com. Scott may be reached via telephone, 9am-5pm (EST) at 978.870.2944.