Skip to main content

Since when is WWI a French thing?

A Dec. 14, 2010, article on the Wall Street Journal website (“Collectors Vie For World War I Memorabilia”) boldly proclaimed, “Whereas World War II or Napoleonic-era militaria are popular with collectors world-wide, enthusiasm for WWI memorabilia is predominantly a French thing.” Though many will be quick to say the French have a Franco-centric view of the world, this statement—in what used to be a vehicle of quality world business news—was just downright sloppy and unfounded.

The impetus for the statement was the recent rash of robberies of French military museums, the most recent, the privately run Verdun Memorial. The article quoted the Memorial’s director, Xavier Pierson, who said the burglars stole more than 40 of the museum's most valuable objects, including battle helmets, firearms and a whole display cabinet full of cigarette lighters. Mr. Pierson is reported as saying he believed the robbery at the Verdun Memorial and two earlier robberies at Fort Vaux and Fort de la Falouse were “stealing to order.” He explained he surmised that either collectors are perpetrating the crime or hiring others to steal for them. Tobias Grey, the author of the article, concluded, "incidents like this are the underside of renewed French interest in WWI memorabilia."

This could be true. After all, only Russia suffered more in terms of casualties and devastation than France during WWI. Nearly 1.7 million French soldiers died repelling the German invaders between 1914 and 1918.

Jean-Claude Dey, who author Grey described as "an expert in antique weapons and historical memorabilia," asserted "It's still a bit early to make a bundle [on WWI memorabilia. The problem is there isn't all that much material that really stands out. During World War I, it was khaki for everyone and all cut to the same size. The most attractive memorabilia tends to be from the German side, especially the pointed helmets, which regularly fetch €5,000." Maybe Dey and the author of the article didn't think that WWI commanded a "bundle" by Wall Street Journal standards, but regardless, it is inaccurate in the kindest assessment and total buffoonery if one were attempting to write an accurate measurement of the WWI collecting field.

While it is true in the United States, collecting WWI memorabilia ranks probably around third in popularity (WWII and Civil War being more popular and about the same as Vietnam), it has been growing steadily over the last 20 years. And whereas WWI was a huge part of the nation's collective awareness during the 1920s and 1930s, the outbreak of WWII quickly pushed it to the back of the nation's mental closet. During 1945 and 1946, the national focus shifted to accommodating the returning WWII veterans. Soon thereafter, the Berlin Blockade and the eruption of the Korean War took center stage. The veterans of the Great War faded along with the nation’s collective memory of their sacrifices.

By 1961, any national patriotism that existed focused on the centennial of the Civil War. This was the birth of modern Civil War collecting and thousands embraced the hobby. U.S. WWII relics were just so much surplus and WWI... well, an all but totally forgotten "minor" war regarded much the same as the Mexican War or Spanish American War of the previous century. As the veterans of the French campaigns, the Mexican deserts and the frozen tundra of Russia passed on, the relics of their efforts languished on the militaria market while collectors snatched up Civil War relics at increasing speed.

Somewhere in the mid-1980s—about the time the movie Glory hit the big screen—Civil War collecting neared its zenith. Demand for images, weapons, accouterments and personal items skyrocketed. And so did the prices. In 1974, an enlisted Union soldier’s 4-button fatigue jacket could have been purchased for about $500. Within just 10 years, it would cost three times that. Images that had been bought and sold prior to the nation’s bicentennial for $20-$50 were commanding prices of $100 and $150 by the mid-1980s.

By 1990, the economic boom in the United States allowed many to enter the hobby… and they came with handfuls of money. Prices jumped as demand soared. That same 4-button sack coat now cost about $8,000, and those images were now in the $250-$350 range. New collectors who didn’t have lots of discretionary cash as well as veteran collectors who just couldn’t keep up with the rising prices of quality Civil War relics looked elsewhere for something to satiate their militaria desires.

Civil War collecting had whetted the appetite for assembling “complete” soldier displays resplendent with shoes, underwear, toiletries and other incidentals tied together with a state-based unit-affiliation that provided a sense of connection to the collector. Even though collecting Second World War relics provided a similar experience of being able to compile a soldier’s complete kit, that sense of unit and state identity was lost.

Collectors looked for something a little older that would give them the same sense of satisfaction that the Civil War had provided. Though the Spanish American War provided the sense of state identity, it was fought by a relatively small number of Americans so the amount of surviving relics was not there. It was at this point, American collectors “discovered” the Great War.

It was the perfect collecting ground. Though many units were renumbered into the National Guard sequence, the individual regiments retained strong state identities. Furthermore, each doughboy was permitted to retain his helmet, uniform and gas mask when he was discharged from service. In the months following the Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice, soldiers flush with money quickly upgraded their personal appearances with private purchases of uniforms, insignia and mementos, making collecting relics of the American Doughboy a fertile pasture 80 years later.

During the 1990s and 2000s, interest in collecting WWI blossomed as many veteran collectors abandoned the Civil War, and new collectors realized that there were many WWI relics were still obtainable from families, at antique shows and flea markets. Like any collecting arena, rarities were quickly identified and jumped in value. Aviation, Tank Corps and American Field Service material leaped to the forefront as did medal groups, helmets, patches and collar discs. It wasn’t long before thousands of dollars were being exchanged for identified uniform or medal groups or prototype helmets.

Now, in 2011 as we approach the 95th anniversary of America’s entry into the European “war to end all wars,” collecting has surged—both in the numbers who collect and the prices being paid. Several dealers have emerged over the last 20 years who specialize in WWI collectibles. Contrary to the Wall Street Journal article, individual items regularly sell in the $10,000+ arena—and it’s not just Pickelhauben, but medals, uniform groups, weapons and even steel helmets (albeit, the latter reported sales have been mostly for prototype helmets and not painted or regular issue helmets).

It is true that no nation other than Russia suffered as much as France during WWI in terms of destruction of land and loss of life, but that does not mean that the French are the only ones with an interest in the Great War as Wall Street Journal reported. Though only about 118,000 Americans lost their lives in the war compared to France’s nearly 1.7 million, collecting of both French and American relics are very active in both nations.

So, perhaps this edition of the JAG File will serve notice to the once-noble Wall Street Journal and its reporter, Tobias Grey (with no disrespect to France or her soldiers who served so valiantly), that WWI collecting in the United States is alive, well and commanding record prices. But, as an individual who actively collects relics from the Great War, maybe I should just say “thanks” with a wink for making the financial world believe there is no real value in this stuff!

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

Frontline Feature


Kramer Auction Service

Our knowledge in firearms, advertising, auctions, and technology are why we are Wisconsin’s premier firearms auction center. If you’re looking to buy or sell guns, military items, and others, Kramer Auction Service will help you every step of the way.