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State of the Militaria Hobby


Having just returned from the Show of Shows (SOS), I have fielded several questions about the health of hobby. The economic doldrums, the instability of Mideast, rising unemployment only outpaced by rising fuel costs and a general sense of apprehension have many asking, “What’s the health of the hobby?”

I certainly don’t have any special view, but I guess my position does afford me the opportunity to overhear a lot of conversations and to observe several patterns. Before drawing any conclusions, however, I have to ensure that I don’t let my own collecting successes and failures color my observations.

The first thing I will report about the SOS is that it remains the largest all-militaria show in the United States. With more than 1,600 tables, the show is sold out months ahead of the late February date and there is a long waiting list of collectors and dealers who want tables. Public attendance is generally in the 5,000-6,000 range over three days. This year was no different.

I had four tables covered with what I considered “Wal-mart” collectibles. Not great stuff, just general WWI and WWII items priced very low. This seems to be a formula that works for me: Quantity, solid quality (that is, no fakes, questionable items clearly indicated on labels), low prices marked on the items (nothing drives me away from a table faster than not seeing prices on items!), and having bins and tubs of small items to search through. I rarely had a chance to sit down from Wednesday night setup through Sunday afternoon teardown. Folks love bargains and the thrill of possibly discovering something the guy standing behind the table didn’t recognize.

I didn’t get away from tables except for bathroom breaks so any observations were made on the fly. What I did observe, though, was that many tables had exceptional, high-quality items. When I did stop to take a closer look, I experienced a high degree of “sticker shock.” Items that should have cost $1,000 or $1,500 were marked $4,000 or $5,000. The same was truer for smaller items… if an item normally sold for $100, it was marked $400 or $500. What was going on? Was the world economy impacting our tight little fraternity?

I discussed this with several veteran collectors who stopped at my table to chat. The general consensus was this: As many collectors drift away from selling on eBay, they have dug into their collections to select and price items with the attitude, “if someone is stupid enough to pay this, I will sell it.” It was like a real-time “Buy it Now” price like we see on eBay… way beyond normal retail, but if someone really wants it…

The “big” buyers, that is, dealers buying for resale, generally reported that the show was really off. A couple saying, “Worst buying SOS in a long time.” Conversely, the same dealers did report, “Best selling SOS.” It seems buyers were there ready with cash. Quality items sold fast. “Wal-mart militaria” (like what I had on my tables) sold equally fast, but you have to sell a whole lot of buttons and Ike jackets to pay the expenses! What I did notice, however, was middle-of-the-road militaria, if priced at last year’s retail, sat on the tables unsold for the entire weekend.

In my observation, I would venture that non-U.S. attendance was down this year. Stands to reason, the Euro, Pound and Yen are just as weak as the dollar these days.

Curiously, I had several conversations about Internet collector forums. It would seem more and more veteran collectors are leaving forums or simply don’t make the time for them anymore. Several did discuss that they use Facebook to connect with small, tight communities of “their own kind” (be they helmet collectors, WWI nuts, Civil War image traders or reenactors”). It is far too early to predict the demise of forums, but there is a very obvious shift occurring.

Finally, one trend that has existed in the hobby from the beginning is changing. In the past, one might walk up to a dealer’s table full of unpriced items and select an object with the question, “How much?”, only to receive an answer that began with, “Well, I’ve got X dollars in it….” I have railed on this before: As I collector, I don’t care one bit what someone has in a particular object. Starting the negotiating with telling me how much a person has spent on an object usually implies to me that they think it somehow justifies the price they paid, whether it was too much or not. At this year’s SOS, I heard the same statement uttered many times, but it really seem to be restricted to the older, veteran dealers and collectors. The younger set seem to accept the fact that people paid way too much for stuff in the 1990s and 2000s and that the potential buyer is not responsible for those poor purchase decisions. Coincidentally, this is the same trend happening out in “the real world.” In my humble opinion, it is great to see the militaria hobby developing the same tolerances and expectations as the rest of the business world.

The SOS can set the tone for the entire show season, and it remains to be seen if this is true for 2011. If it is, we will continue to see great items emerge to market, at first for way too much money but then, slowly descend to realistic prices allowing new, significant collections to form. We are on the cusp of a new collecting age. The next couple of years will reveal if the hobby leaps forward or falls flat.

Be wise, be patient and prepared to buy when that great piece appears,

John A-G
Editor, Military Trader & Military Vehicles Magazine

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