1996 Ambiguous perspectives regarding the collection of militaria
I got into militaria as a dealer sort of by accident. At
least it was accident on my
part. The dealer who deflowered me in militaria, as it were, knew what he was doing,
and I, as usual in these seductions, lived and learned, and it didn't cost anywhere near a
college education. I'm going to start this piece with a bit of personal history and opinion,
so you'll have some idea of how I approach militaria in my role as a retail "thing" dealer,
which is the way I approach the field.
I've been in coins for 35 years now, best I remember. I am a "coin person,"
meaning I find coins irrationally fascinating. Other people find other things irrationally
fascinating, and I myself have several other irrational fascinations, all of them seemingly
"harmless." Having grown up with an awareness of my fixation, and having my entire
life been aware of the dealers who were eager to service my fixation, and eventually, to
the exclusion of anything more reasonable becoming one of the dealers, I'm reasonably
familiar with the way that hobby/market operates and its behavior is my benchmark for
how other markets behave. Coins, in the larger scheme of things, have been in the
doldrums in USA since 1980 (year of the silver bubble), but have picked up big time in a
number of other countries: Germany, China, Spain, Portugal, etc. and there are more.
But still other countries have no mass coin market at all: much of Latin America, Africa.
Some countries used to have markets but now have none to speak of: Nederland,
There used to be a mass market of coin collectors in the big 5 anglophone
countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, UK, USA). This was back in the '50s and
early '60s, the Whitman blue-folder period. You could go to the bank and get rolls of
silver dollars and find good stuff in them, and similarly in England and Canada. It was a
golden age for stamps then too. The kids thought it was fun to collect, a generally
approved hobby. After the 1955 double die penny everyone was looking through their
pocket change for years, or wishing they had.
Coin dealer ranks ballooned after the ending of silver coins in 1965. The general
public was impressed with the rapidity of disappearance of silver coins, which were
grabbed up by millions of silver bugs, and continued to be impressed as the numismatic
speculators proceeded to snap up EVERYTHING out of circulation, so that all the war
nickels and Buffalos disappeared, and the silver certificates, and finally if you wanted to
collect USA coins you couldn't do it yourself, you had to go to a dealer.
Of course, that's no fun for a kid. 6 year old coin collector won't go to the dealer.
So the hobby died. Now it's 30 years later, there's a lot you can get out of change, but all
the years of publicized dealer shenanigans when coins were pretending to be big
business, culminating in the silver bubble of 1980, gave a negative cast to the hobby,
which is all it is, after all. To bring it back to mass status would have to have some mega
star be a collector and thereby spawn emulators. Otherwise, coins in USA will remain
what they are now, the pursuit of dedicated amateurs, the more so as their use in
commerce continues to decline.
The dedicated amateurs are served by a core of dealers who have figured out how
to make a profit trading in the things. At the dedicated amateur level, accumulation of
value is usually a factor in everyone's thinking, and though a mass market is not
happening the actual number of collectors of all things is growing and therefore prices
are too. This is a large part of the dynamic in China, where coins are really, really hot.
No way do they not take investment potential into account when they pay double USA
catalog for their coins!
Every country is different. Many countries have hot markets in phone cards,
while we find here in USA that you can give these cards away and the mass of people
still won't use them. And because there's no use, there's no collection. But phone cards
are really big elsewhere.
So about 5 years ago I am offered these Soviet medals at what seemed at the time
to be extremely good prices. I bought some and managed to get a few of the relatively
big prices paid by the guys who want to be first on the block with something new. Prices
for Soviet are now less than 10% of what they were then, but that's another story. I
looked on the venture as the opening of a new market, and it looked promising.
In no time I had acquired many kilos of all kinds of badges and medals from the
Eastern Bloc, and they were selling, though I mostly had to continually lower my prices
as the market filled up. Had to buy a bunch of references, make new contacts, learn, etc.
Someone consigned a bunch of British Empire. I started getting things that aren't in the
major catalogs (there is no single "Standard Catalog of Orders and Medals"). And I got
some paperwork, and some of it sold, and some bigger things; hats and so forth, that take
up too much storage space.
There used to be a zillion tons of vintage military surplus in USA, and old war
medals would be in the antique shop for prices ranging from 50¢ to $50 for the same
thing. Militaria collectors were few and far between back 20 years ago. Now militaria
shows are 5 times the size of coin shows, surplus stores can't keep anything in stock, it
gets sold so fast. Collectors, reenactors, punks, and various other types of enthusiasts
suck up everything, including the repros and fakes, and prices go up and up all the time.
I note with interest that the major repro suppliers are not at pains to make sure the
purchasers know they are buying unoriginal. This would be a crime in the coin market,
besides not being possible, though such ambiguity is tolerated in the related "antiquities"
market. I have found the militaria field to be saturated with fakes, and have held in my
hands numerous repros or fakes at various price levels from at least 7 countries. At least
half of them were meant to deceive.
Medal ribbons are another problem. In some circles the use of replacement
ribbons is frowned on, but in most corners of the market ribbons are replaced at high
rates without any mention being made. There is no standard, some replacement ribbons
are authorized, sometimes homemade replacements are also authorized, it's a very muddy
Another fixture of the current market is that ridiculously high prices continue to
be achieved. I say ridiculous because of the profits involved. In coins the market
frequently forces you towards an "ain't worth doing" 20%. Bullion typically moves at a
3-8% markup. Not worth it. In militaria good stuff frequently can support 100%, and the
typical profit on mass market, ordinary material can be more comfortable than that.
Dealers continue to amaze themselves. I do too.
Some market details:
The "premier" items are the weapons (in which I don't deal), and medals and
badges, and the largest discrete subgroup of militarianists is the collectors of these.
While most medal collectors buy either because they like it or they collect types, a subset
does research on campaigns or units, or individuals, and these people will often pay very
high for things they want (that usually can't be found). Medals and badges with
paperwork are worth more, sometimes much more, and groups of papers and badges can
get quite astonishingly expensive.
Collecting uniforms requires substantial space, though a large number of people
may keep some uniform pieces around for whatever reason. Weaponry is popular, but I
don't deal enough of it to comment intelligently. General military paperwork is a spotty
seller, though original war photos usually cause me surprise and gratification. All of
these subcategories and more have seen steep price rises in the last 10 years.
The hot countries are USA, UK, Commonwealth, Imperial Japan, Imperial
Russia, and Germany before 1946. Second tier countries are the rest of Europe and
maybe Thailand. There remains some interest in Soviet, though the market remains
oversold. Only specialists are looking for Soviet satellite material, and it's quite cheap by
and large. There's little mass interest in Africa and Asia, my medals from Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Singapore, etc. tend to sit around. Latin American militaria tends to remain in
families as treasured memorabilia, so there's very little of it on the market.
There are hot wars too. WWII is #1 because of availability as well as sentiment.
WWI is also extremely popular, and the American Civil War. All the other wars go at a
sentimental discount. The Moro Uprising, the Haitian Occupation, Korean War, etc. all
have memorabilia, but do not attract masses of devoted collectors in the way that the Big
There are lots of clubs, but no real organization on the dealer side other than to
put together regional shows. Militaria trade journals tend to be very long on advertising
and very short on editorial policy. There is no "Standard Catalog," no national magazine,
no standards of grading and authenticity. I might dare to characterise the market as
"immature," by which token coins might called "late middle aged."