Condition and Provenance in US Militaria

Inside shot of a WWII M1-C paratrooper helmet
Theater made Korean War UNPIK patch
A CBI P-38 pilot contemplates his mortality
Bevo Vietnam era Special Forces

Grading condition for military collectibles is not a simple process. Militaria is different from many other collectibles, where flawless examples are ideal and items with condition issues have less value.

The two most important variables that complicate grading militaria are scarcity and provenance. Scarcity is self-explanatory. Provenance is the historical link between object and owner. Items that are not rare and lack provenance can simply be graded using a scale that ranges from “relic” (meaning ground dug and rough) to “Unissued” (out of the crate and barely touched).

Provenance is interesting in collecting militaria because it often provides clemency to the rules of condition. I will explain why. Many military objects collected were intended for use in combat. These items include helmets and headgear, field uniforms, field gear, firearms, and edged weapons. If the item shows use but has provenance to support the claim that it was used in combat, desirability for that item increases greatly.

For example, in WWII prior to D-Day, most US 101st and 82nd Airborne personnel were issued two sets of reinforced jump jackets and pants. Typically one set was impregnated with a chemical called CC-2 to protect the wearer from exposure to gas. The impregnated set was worn on the Normandy jump while the untreated set remained in England. While non-impregnated jump uniforms are rare, finding an impregnated set that was worn in combat is extremely rare. Few documented examples survive today and most show wear and tear from combat. Documented combat used sets are worth many times more than the clean sets.

Another example is a Civil War “shell jacket” recently sold at auction. It had excellent provenance of being worn at Gettysburg. In fact, the jacket had a repaired hole where the wearer being shot in it! This jacket brought over $55,000 while one in comparable condition without provenance would bring less than $2,000.

With the exception of Civil War collectibles, provenance for US militaria did not gain importance until recent years. Prior to this shift, a majority of collectors were “type collectors”, where their focus was on single facets of militaria like helmets, daggers, medals, or patches. When a veteran grouping was acquired from an estate, the items were broken up and scattered in the wind, making their provenance very difficult to verify or maintain afterward.

The hobby is changing and more collectors are expanded their interest in military objects to include the history of the individuals that used them. Many militaria collectors tolerate honest wear if it’s caused by normal use. Bad wear is often the result of improper storage and can seriously diminish the value of an item. Examples of bad wear include dry rot, mildew, mothing, mold, paint spots, pitting, rust, and corrosion. Once bad wear sets in, it is very difficult to reverse the process and it detracts from the presentation and desirability of a piece.

Bad wear is particularly frowned upon among items not used in the field like dress uniforms, presentation swords, medals, paperwork, photos, plaques, and awards.

There are instances when an item is rare enough that bad wear is tolerated. An example would be Civil War garments that have mothing. Today, many of these pieces look like Swiss cheese, yet their scarcity makes them a coveted item and a centerpiece in any collection.

In summary, if a militaria item is not considered scarce and does not have provenance, it can be graded on a condition scale much like a coin or a stamp. If the item is truly rare and/or has verified, significant provenance other factors apply when assessing value. The rule of thumb for militaria (and any collectible) is strive to buy the best. Time and money is wasted when you buy items you intend on upgrading in the future.

Chris Hughes is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in 20th century militaria and the owner of Rally Point Militaria and Vietnam Uniform – Military Collectibles sites.