Sunday, February 17, 2013

My History as a Collector Part I

I thought I would take a break this week from talking about an item to give some insight into me as a collector, about this hobby and maybe a few collecting tips.

First of all, collecting militaria is rewarding for a history buff, like myself.  I have always liked old things.  Old homes interest me.  I like old furniture --  I had twin antique beds from Bavaria in my room as a child.   To me, having old things allows me to touch history -- to feel something tangible that has been there and done that.

I started collecting militaria when is was about 10 years old.  I ordered a German helmet from the Second World War, or so the advertisement in the comic book claimed.  Most likely it was a Spanish or Chinese helmet, post war, but it didn't matter to me.  Shortly thereafter a good friend of my parents gave me a German helmet that had been brought back from The Great War relative who had served. As I was really into the Second World War at the time, I purchased a British helmet -- from the same company that sold me the German helmet.   I was on my way.

At that time, the early 1980's, the gun show, flea market and the hit and miss antique shop presented the only opportunities for me to purchase old guns and swords.   I was not the child who was playing sports, hunting or fishing.  I was the child reading the encyclopedia, building models and playing army in the backyard.  While I did not appreciate at the time, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my parents' patience and understanding with me.  My parents, at least my father, endured monthly visits to the Vicksburg National Military Park.  They also obliged me with Saturday mornings at the gun show and Sunday afternoons at the flea market.  My parents allowed me to barter  with birthdays and Christmas to enable me to purchase an item "out of season."  Even though my birthday might be several months away, my parents would purchase and item for me early with the promise that "this will count as your birthday/Christmas gift."   Yes, it was as it sounds -- I was spoiled.   I purchased my first Civil War sword, a beaten up pattern 1860 U.S. light cavalry sabre made by Emerson & Silver of Trenton, New Jersey, at a gun show at age 14 or so.  That same year I purchased my first musket,  what was most likely a percussion fowling musket, from an antique shop in Vicksburg.

Please don't get me wrong.  Things didn't  always go my way.   On one occasion my father and I stopped at an attraction on the way to Vicksburg due to its billboard advertising "Civil War Relics" for sale.   The owner presented himself as a freelance Civil War writer.  When I inquired as to the relics, he escorted my father and I into his study where he produced several swords.  There were pattern 1840 heavy cavalry sabres (old "wrist breakers"), 1840 light artillery sabres, 1860 light cavalry sabres and a heavy artillery short sword.  I was in heaven.  It was the heavy artillery sword that caught my eye.  I like the stout blade, based upon the sword of a Roman legionnaire, but I also liked the C and the S cast into the hilt.  At age 15, I certainly lacked the knowledge that I have know, but I knew enough that as a collector I should be interested in this sword. I asked, "how much is the short sword?"   The response, "$300.00."   The most we had paid at this time for any one item was probably around $200.00 and that was for a large musket. This was a short sword.  I looked at my father and he shook his head indicating that acquisition of this item was not in my collecting budget.  I was disappointed and probably acted in an undignified manner for the rest of the day.   I remember my father saying "how do you know that it is real?"  I didn't know how to response, but I got my answer the following weekend.   After a week of  negotiations, we trecked back to the freelance writer's house to take a second look at the short sword.  However, it was gone. The freelance writer told us that a militaria dealer from up north came through and purchased everything that he had.   I asked, "how much did did he pay for the short sword?"   He answered, "$600.00."  

I think that  I remember that event very well, even after the passage of thirty years, because of the lessons that it thought me.  Of course it has taken me several years to realize it, but my father was perfectly right to question authenticity.  Also, these are not items that are easily found and acquired.  When the opportunity arises, you must act.   Collecting militaria is a melding of these two principles. To successfully engage in this hobby, you must examine with a critical, if not suspicious, eye. You must also have the courage to trust your instincts and pull the trigger, so to speak.  This is not a hobby for the faint of heart or the imprudent.  There are scoundrels and cheats putting forth very good fakes. There are innocent sellers unknowingly passing on fakes and reproductions as originals to innocent net and unknowing buyers.  The collector  must educate, educate and the educate some more.  You should always ask yourself "how do I know that this item is real?"   If educated, the collector will
be able to answer the question.