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Study before you Buy

Recently, I was hired to examine, describe and evaluate about 300 British campaign medals ranging from the War of 1812 to the 1970s. I must confess, before this gig, I knew nothing—and cared even less—about British medals.

With little base knowledge, I had to immerse myself into the expansion and maintenance of the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries. I have always said that either a person is an Anglophile or they are not—there isn’t any middle ground. Regardless, I started to teach myself about things like the First Anglo-Sikh War, North-West Frontier and Pink’s War, I experienced a rising interest in all things British.

Working for several different militaria dealers, I have learned to control my impulses as I delve into a collecting arena that is new to me. A few months ago, I had to immerse myself into WWII Japanese uniforms. For about three weeks, I desperately wanted to begin collecting Type 45 caps, summer weight tunics and combat helmets. I knew I had to resist the urges while I wrapped up the job. Moving onto the next project, my interest in Japanese relics subsided. I had avoided spending a couple thousand dollars on a passing interest, but at least I had the base knowledge in WWII Japanese relics to show for the effort!

The same thing happened when I was asked to describe and evaluate a box of pre-WWII chevrons for another dealer. By the end of the project, I was convinced I wanted to begin collecting 1902 pattern chevrons. A few weeks went by and, although I looked at many chevrons on eBay, I had placed no bids. The mood had passed before a financial commitment was made.

Boer War or Just Bored?
I have spent a lot of effort, time and money on building what I believe to be a respectable WWI AEF Tank Corps collection. I have thoroughly enjoyed researching the careers of two officers of the 301st Heavy Tank Bn., both of whose uniforms I own. When I run into a block in that research, I can turn to a 344th Tank Bn. officer who won the Distinguished Service Cross. His uniform is just a few feet from me as I type this blog. The rest of my office is decorated with other identified uniforms, helmets and accouterments from the first few years of Tank Corps history.

So why have I recently immersed myself in reading about Canada’s involvement in the Boer War ?

I know that being able to get excited and being able to figure out the nuances of any aspect of collecting militaria is a blessing, but it can also be a curse. Being able to switch to the “Tank Corps” section of my brain and open up another section helps me pay the bills. When various dealers get a big batch of stuff that is outside of their immediate expertise, they have figured out it is more efficient to hire someone to describe and assign values than do it themselves. It’s a relationship that is good for them and good for me.

The danger for me, however, is not unlike the perils that face the fat boy who is hired to work at a candy factory.

While I worked on the big pile of medals during the past couple of weeks, I read Our Little Army in the Field: The Canadians in South Africa 1899-1902, spent countless late nights searching Boer War records on the Internet and made lengthy lists of medals I would like to buy. Without spending a dime, I decided I was going to be a “Boer War collector”, though only a month earlier, I couldn’t have told you the difference between the Defense of Mafeking and an attack on Burger King.

Eventually, the description job was done and the dealer began the process of selling them. In some way that I still don’t quite understand, my interest began to wane. Soon, I realized, the Boer War isn’t a part of my “collector DNA”. I don’t have any personal connection to it; no ancestors who participated in it, no interest in it since before kindergarten, no family stories, nothing. It was just something that caught my fancy, I studied it and can easily move on—or rather, move back to those things that have been a constant in my life: the Mexican War, Belgians in WWI and the birth of the Tank Corps.

What did I learn?
Unlike life in the pre-Internet days, it is easy to spend a ton of money on a passing interest. While I was jonesing on the Boer War, it was not difficult to find any number of medals, relics or souvenirs via the Internet. It would not have taken more than an evening of keyboard clicks to rocket from casual interest to deeply invested collector.

While I was studying the medals and writing descriptions for them, I discovered many nuances that a novice would not know if they just wandered into a show and decided at that moment they were going to begin collecting medals. I know most advance collectors advise, “study before you buy”. But the need for instant gratification coupled with the speed of buying over the Internet stands between that good advice and a lot of our impulses.

What do I have to show for my passing interest in the Boer War? Well, I am gratified to report that I limited myself to purchasing a few books and a couple of pretty cool original photographs of Canadians who participated. I did achieve an understanding of a military conflict about which I had previously known next to nothing. But I did it without diverting thousands of dollars from my core collecting interests to satisfy my new curiosity.

But of course, the urges are still there.

Control the disease, enjoy the symptoms,
John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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