Creepy hobby, historically important, or the spoils of war?
Bill recently spent time with Chris Vernon, of the Star-Metroland, to offer his insight into the controversial hobby of collecting militaria.
1. Explain to me your customer profile. What does the average collector of Third Reich militaria look like?
Do you remember the song called “Universal Soldier” by Donovan? That would describe my customer base. I have blue collar workers as well as a supreme court judge. I have customers who are Baptist ministers and others who are Jewish lawyers. They come from all walks of life and most are in their 50s or 60s with many in their 70s. However, there are not enough young, beginning collectors. This is a foreboding issue for the future of the hobby.
2. What do you think is the allure of collecting items from the Nazi period?
There are many reasons. The Third Reich is one of the best documented periods in history. Thousands of books and movies have been, and continue to be, made regarding one of the most momentous periods of the 20th century. The fact that returning veterans from the victorious allies brought home “everything but the kitchen sink” after WWII, all contribute to the continued interest in collecting and preserving these “war trophies”.
3. Explain to me how you have seen the hobby change over the years?
Well, certainly the number of reference books and the internet have allowed collectors to better identify what they have. There are on-line forums which provide a wealth of information to guide collectors regarding identification, value and originality. Collectors are much better informed, not only about the items, but also about the volatile history of that period. Values certainly have changed. Helmets that I bought back in the 1960s for $20 are now worth several hundred dollars on today’s market. The same goes for just about every type of artifact from that period.
4. Tell me how you acquire the items you sell. How does it work for the seller, let’s say granddad brought a war trophy home and I want to sell it?
I have been buying, selling and collecting for nearly 60 years. During this time, I have assembled a huge network of fellow collectors and dealers who are continually finding items or changing their collecting interests. Because I have a huge number of clients who are looking to buy these items, sellers are always contacting me because they know I am ready, willing and able to buy one item or an entire collection. I maintain a very large inventory with just about anything and everything carried by the military on both sides of the conflict.
In regards to your granddad’s helmet, we have set up our website to attract sellers throughout the world who have items they wish to sell. Once they contact us, we assist them in identifying, evaluating and pricing their items. I also consult for two major auction houses and serve as a Trustee for the International Museum of World War II in Natick, Massachusetts. You would be amazed at the number of items that are out there still waiting to be found.
5. You have a reputation as being one of the best dealers in the business. Why do you think that is?
I appreciate those kind words. Your reputation is everything no matter what field of enterprise you are involved with. Product knowledge is vital in a hobby like collecting militaria. There is a specific correlation between the value of an item and the effort the fakers will go to to clone an item in order to dupe an unsuspecting collector. One of my responsibilities is to be able to tell the difference between original items and reproduction items. Another is to determine if an original item has been tampered with. My customers rely on my experience to provide them with original items that have not be altered. I take that responsibility very seriously.
6. I read you are concerned about the future of the hobby as future generations become further removed from that period in history. Does the hobby have a future?
I am definitely concerned about the future of the hobby. As I mentioned earlier, the average age of my customer is well into his 50s. There is a lack of younger people getting into the hobby. My bucket list includes changing this trend. We have geared our internet activity to attract new collectors and younger people. I have prepared blogs and will continue to prepare blogs and YouTube videos to help educate beginning collectors. We spend a lot of time with younger collectors who contact us or attend militaria shows. Our website is:
7. When a new Second World War movie or video game like Call of Duty is released, do you see a spike in interest in the hobby and sales?
Unquestionably, there is a distinct connection between the release of a new movie or action game and interest in collecting. Series like “Band of Brothers” or “The Pacific” also have an impact. In the old days, it also included a new reference book on a particular facet of collecting like helmets or medals and badges. This will continue in the future as the public’s interest in this time period is still strong.
8. What are your thoughts on collecting as it pertains to being an investment? Is it a good investment?
This is a question I get asked all the time. Like everything else in my life, I answer this question honestly. If your primary reason for collecting is for investment purposes, I recommend you look elsewhere. I’m not saying it’s a bad investment, however you should collect because you enjoy the history and the regalia of the period. If you collect carefully and interact with the right dealers and collectors who will guide you, you can enjoy owning and preserving these pieces of history for future generations.
9. Is it true the market is flooded with fakes and shady dealers? How do you find a reputable dealer?
Reproductions are the Achilles’ heel of the hobby. Every item that was made back then is being reproduced today. This is a very big issue. I urge collectors to insist on getting lifetime, written money back guarantees regarding originality from dealers and collectors they interact with. If the dealer or collector doesn’t offer this, you should look elsewhere for your WWII items. Collectors should ask other collectors about dealers and check with on-line forums as that is a good source of information.
10. When someone asks you “Why do you collect that evil Nazi stuff?” what do you say?
I’m a retired history teacher with, what I believe, is a good perspective on world history. I tell them I collect WWII memorabilia from many of the countries that participated in this historic event. We don’t have to defend this position because I look at the German items as spoils of war. I always say “to the victor goes the spoils”
Many of us played “capture the flag” as kids and the goal was to take the opponent’s flag and get it back to your side. I look at collecting these items as preserving the history of our fathers, grandfathers, etc., who brought these items home as proud trophies of their hard-earned victory which was obtained with risk and loss of life to many of their brothers in arms.
11. Some say these items should be in museums or destroyed, not in private hands. What’s your response to those people?
I believe that museums are an essential tool for properly displaying historical items and have a responsibility to use these artifacts to teach people about past events in our history. Proper display, signage and interactive dioramas can be entertaining and educational.
Destroying pieces of past history serves no positive purpose whatsoever. There is no hiding what took place and people have multiple ways to learn about history. Therefore, the mere destruction of the actual artifacts has no value.
12. How has the supply and demand changed over the years?
I assume items are becoming harder and harder to find. People have been collecting these items since before the war ended in 1945 and so there are thousands of large collections throughout the world. I have customers in every continent except Antarctica. As collectors age, many of these collections will become available. In addition to this, many artifacts are still being discovered tucked away in attics since they were brought or sent home. Therefore, I believe the supply is still out there.
Once again, there are trends where certain items get really popular so the demand increases.
13. Why do you think it’s important to preserve these items for future generations?
I believe I’ve covered this elsewhere.
14. Detractors of the hobby say collectors must be racist skinheads, or at the very least have far right leanings. What are your thoughts on the perceived connection between collecting and racism?
There is no correlation between the two when it comes to original WWII artifacts. I speak from nearly six decades of buying, selling and collecting WWII memorabilia when I say I have encountered less than five collectors of genuine German souvenirs who would fall into the category of racist, skinheads, neo-Nazis or white supremacists. They don’t want to spend the money on original items.
15. What advice would you give someone who is thinking about starting to collect?
Collect what you like. Pretty soon you will discover there are certain items you enjoy more and you can begin to concentrate on a particular area such as headgear, medals and badges, buckles, field gear, etc.
- Get some good reference books as they are available in practically every aspect of collecting.
- Use the on-line forums to learn more about the collectibles you are purchasing.
- Carefully screen and select who you buy from.
16. Our soldiers brought home “souvenirs” by the boatload during and after the war, why do you think they did that?
I covered some of this in my answer to question #10 but I’ll add this explanation.
Soldiers have been returning home from wars with souvenirs since ancient times. Many of the items soldiers brought home because they thought they might use them once they got home. Camouflage jackets made excellent hunting coats. The same was true for rifles. However, the overwhelming majority of WWII veterans I have spoken to over the years I’ve been buying, selling and collecting, said they brought home items to show them off. The German stuff was very fancy and much more colorful than the Japanese uniforms and accessories so much more got brought home from the European Theatre of Operation.
Time and place also played an important role in what soldiers were able to grab. Once the shooting was over, they certainly had more opportunities to seek out souvenirs. Officers also had more latitude regarding sending home items.
17. If there was one thing you would like people to know about the hobby, what would it be?
It’s historical and can be a lot of fun. There are many fine people who collect these items. I’ve made more friends through collecting than in any other aspect of my life. I’m very proud of what I do and the people I get to interact with.
Items from this period can be collected on a limited budget. There are hundreds of cloth and metal insignia pieces that are under $100. A person can collect dozens of different belt buckles from multiple organizations for the same money.
18. Tell me about some of the Holy Grail pieces you have encountered?
You really should read my books and I believe you’d be amazed. Major Dick Winters from “Band of Brothers” conveyed to me the jump jacket he wore on D-Day and the overcoat he wore at Bastogne. I also own one of Erwin Rommel’s uniforms and one of Adolf Hitler’s brownshirts.
19. What do you like to collect personally, and why?
I love items that have a story with them. They say, “don’t buy the story, buy the item”. That is not the way I look at it. I carefully analyze who is telling me the story and ask myself if it seems credible. After that is established, I love to hear the stories. My books are made up entirely of hundreds of anecdotes regarding my lifetime of collecting. Many of these are first-hand accounts directly from the veterans themselves.
Chris Vernon is the Regional Editor for the Caledon Enterprise, Independent and Free Press, Erin Advocate and the Orangeville Banner.