Careful about that “Group”

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As a collector of militaria identified to particular soldiers, I am sensitive to the use of the term “Group” or “Grouping”. Most collectors will agree, this is a term we use to describe a lot of material from one soldier that was acquired all together. But, like any other terms used within the hobby, that definition is up for interpretation.

Every day, I scan the WWI category on eBay looking for items to add to my AEF Tank Corps collection. I don’t find a lot, but the exercise affords me the opportunity to see some pretty neat pieces and stay familiar with sales patterns. Often, I find myself studying listings that purport to be “groups”. I like to see what items a soldier put away after the war and survived intact for 90+ years.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a couple of groups that caught my eye: One was a 37th Division grouping, the other a 40th Division. Both were offered by the same seller. What really got my attention was the 40th Division group that included a uniform with a gorgeous sunburst shoulder patch and a M1917 helmet with matching painted insignia.

One might ask, “What was so remarkable about this group? Uniforms with insignia and matching painted helmets are commonly encountered.” Well, this one was remarkable for a few reasons: First, the seller said that it all belonged to the same soldier in a Train Battalion. Second, the seller represented himself as a collector and not a dealer … I actually knew the guy and figured him to be a straight-up individual. And third, I knew that the helmet didn’t come with this group—I had just held the helmet in my hands at the Show of Shows and could also point back to the dealer’s catalog where it had been listed a couple of months prior to appearing on the eBay auction as part of the “group”!

There was no doubting the identification. There were paint scratches in the insignia that made the helmet unique. So, I wrote to the seller through eBay’s messaging system to ask if he was sure that this group came together. He replied that it had and its provenance was impeccable. I wrote again, this time a bit more assertive, telling him that I knew the helmet was not part of the group but had been added. I told him that I had, in fact, held and studied the helmet at the SOS. He then relented and admitted that he bought the helmet and added it “because it looked so good together” and that he had never implied that the items all started life together. A third note in which I quoted his own listing disproved this assertion. Finally, he added a note to his auction, but that was long after many people had bid, and if like me, had placed their snipe bids…the latter probably never even seeing the seller’s added comments.

What’s the point of this tale? Well, I guess the obvious is, “Approach ‘groups’ with skepticism. They have a way of growing over the years.” The second moral is, “No matter how well you think you know another collector or dealer, they can surprise you with how far they are willing to stretch the truth to make a sale.” And finally, this should stand as a warning to anyone who misrepresent items: Be aware that there are no secrets anymore…the Internet is a powerful tool for discovering a person’s deception and for also revealing the deceiver’s intent—something that will destroy any hope of maintaining a good reputation in what is actually quite a small fraternity of collectors and dealers.

Will this stop me from buying groups? Heck no! Will I ever trust items dumped on eBay? Not really … the days of finding great sleepers on eBay has passed. For many dealers and collectors, it has become the great dumping ground for the undesirable, questionable and out-right phonies. There are still gems to be found, for sure, but they are becoming far and few between.

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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