Which came first, the wars or the gear? The answer is obvious, but the propensity for tying them together never dawned on soldiers who were lucky to return home in one piece after fighting abroad. There is the occasional tale of the soldier or sailor who picked up a flag or trinket, but until World War I, the idea of bringing home reminders of those harrowing months was far from the minds of survivors.
That stated, Britain sent boys off to war better equipped to fight than did Yanks, notes Pennsylvania State University Lecturer in History David Longenbach, writing for Vice. His article, “We Sent US Soldiers to World War I With Barely Any Gear,” tells a daunting tale, so the absence of items collectors picked up could account for the rarity of treasures in this category. By World War II, that changed dramatically simply because all armed forces were better supplied.
Typical of items found at battle sites or taken from prisoners were helmets painted with camouflage; personal items might include flags, medals, weapons and ration cards. Uniforms weren’t as popular for myriad reasons, though propaganda, signs and badges ripped from uniforms were easy to grab, stash and bring home as souvenirs of combat.
According to Dorian Cart, senior curator of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, soldiers took what they could carry, and curators of WW II collections echo this sentiment. Among the most popular collectables from this era are helmets; medals; insignia’s; weapons; backpacks, mess kits; gas masks; flags; posters; photos and books. German helmets were especially coveted as were items that could be verified to have survived legendary battles like France’s Battle of Belleau Wood.
1. Asian ceramics made during either war. With China experiencing a booming economy of late, major auction houses like Bonham’s and Sotheby’s report that “there have been a lot of people buying back their heritage,” said expert Mark Hill. Get your hands on ceramics made during either world war and you could hit the jackpot if the quality is good.
2. “The Sunday Express” featured the “most valuable memorabilia of the First World War”: a Victoria Cross medal worth £200,000. Also on the list: a £14,000 ‘She Died for Freedom’ medal; £1,500 hooded gas mask; uniformed jacket at £1,000 and boots that went for £800.
3. Antiques appraiser Dr. Lori Verderame urges collectors to pursue “unusual items in good condition,” and especially “daggers, pickelhaube helmets with the Prussian Imperial eagle emblem, and military swords”. These items are currently being sold at auction in the U.S. for tens of thousands of dollars. For collectors unable to acquire high-priced items, Dr. Verderame recommends searching for “brass trench art, brochures, pamphlets, and Red Cross prints.”
4. If you can get your hands on one-of-a-kind items you can quit your day job, say editors at FinancesOnline. Hunt for Winston Churchill’s snuff box, original speeches typed by Churchill, a rare medal of courage bestowed upon members of Mussolini’s armed forces, Hitler’s Luger pistol, a page from Anne Frank’s diary or an original Enigma machine that helped the allies win WWII.
Jason Notte, writing for TheStreet, advises treasure hunters against acquiring the following based on his evaluation of eBay sales traffic that records and reports on items that may seem top-of-the-line, but aren’t worth your time and effort:
Internet resources like JC Militaria, Parade Antiques and eBay, where the menu of collectable niches and constantly updated inventory can lead you to the treasure of a lifetime. Browsing Gumtree on occasion can’t hurt either.
If you live in London, The London Medal Company or Hearts & Daggers Militaria are worth a visit. Are your digs further west? War & Son Medals & Military Antiques in Leominster may stock items you are looking for. Alternately, use your favourite search engine to build a list of private collectors and shops in the U.K.
Search by specialised interests. For example, Franz Fruth Militaria sells German items, as do Espenlaub Militaria and Ersatz Militaria. Griffin Militaria occasionally stocks rare Japanese and U.S. memorabilia.
Show up at the plethora of trade shows, conventions and fairs known to feature sellers specialising in military antique items throughout the U.K. We would be short-sighted if we didn’t mention antiques fairs.
Try non-specific antique shops—retailers who sell a little of this and a little of that, just as long as it’s old—to locate military collectables as long as you have the time to do so. Getting to know shop owners and telling them about your propensity for gathering war memorabilia is a wise move. If they acquire something you may be interested in, they’ll be happy to be your conduit and make a little money in the bargain.
Do battle with duplicitous folks who want to take your money while selling you merchandise that’s not authentic or improperly dated. Schiffer Publishing produces guides about medals, German army uniforms and artefacts. TheGreatWar.co.uk if you’re after the true value of books about WWI.
Use authentication, if a published guide proves insufficient. One of the most prominent-—if you collect Nazi memorabilia, for example–is Leicestershire resident Kevin Wheatcroft whose collection is “widely regarded as the world’s largest accumulation of German military vehicles and Nazi memorabilia.
Can’t arrange a casual meet up? Perhaps the auctioneers at C&T Valuers could help you out. You may also wish to consult with members of the International Society of Appraisers, understanding that the condition of item(s) you hope to buy or sell determine their value.
Bottom line is to conduct your research before committing to an item.
Collectors acquiring military antiques—be they badges and mess kits or tanks—are happiest with their collections if they’ve a passion for an era, a specific period or a geographic location. Those who collect only to make money are missing out on the fun of this hobby and you may not be as interested in the future as those who treasure their memorabilia and are enamoured of the hunt that’s associated with finding each item.
Given the rise in military antique collecting that’s been seen of late, a good question to ask is, “Will it continue?” We’ve no crystal ball to make predictions, but like all antiques, the more time passes, the more value the rarest war memorabilia will hold—but the question will be whether or not a new generation will find in these items the emotional bond that attaches to many of these items today.
That stated, Ben Phelan, writing for the U.S. “Antiques Roadshow” TV series broadcast on PBS, reminds us that “Part of keeping that memory alive must involve maintaining the physical evidence of it. Strange as it may at first seem, a market in which history-minded collectors place a monetary value on Nazi artefacts, and in which they buy and sell them to other collectors — or donate them to museums — can serve a role in preserving our collective historical memory.”
Can you put a price on that statement or the history behind these items? We think not.