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Selling Uncle Fred’s Militaria Collection—A How-To Guide

by Ken Hatfield (07/04/12).

If you had to sell this item from Uncle Fred’s militaria collection, what would you ask for it? An professional appraiser from an auction house specializing in militaria would tell you this uniform belonged to a Luftwaffe (German air force) enlisted man. Such tunics and visor caps—if they are original—are among the most valuable and highly sought after militaria.

Chances are you or someone you know will have an opportunity to sell a military collectible at some time in your life.

A bold statement? Not really. Consider: collecting militaria is a hobby dominated largely by the Baby Boomer generation and older. In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, it is the eighth-most popular collecting hobby among those 55 and older.

And from my experience working at a military auction house, many military collectors wait too long to sell their collections. Often, by the time the collections reach us, the original collector is either deceased or so old that he is no longer able to personally supervise the sale of his militaria.

That means someone else—a spouse, child, relative or friend—will usually end up with that responsibility. And more times than not, that person will either have no clue as to what the collection is worth, or worse, will have an unrealistic expectation of its value.

Let’s look at a common scenario:

Your Uncle Fred has passed away. Your mother asks you to help Aunt Martha dispose of Fred’s large military collection. Unfortunately, Fred kept no records of his collection, which includes a large number of helmets and uniforms that appear to be from Nazi-era Germany. You’re not a history buff, but you’ve watched “Antiques Roadshow” and know there can be big money in a lot of that stuff.

So what do you do?

First off, you’ll have to find someone you trust who will tell you what the items are worth. Unless you happen to know a collector who specializes in Third Reich uniforms and headgear, your options are limited. Your local military surplus store owner probably isn’t the place to go. Chances are he won’t know any more about high-end German collectibles than you do. An antiques mall that handles military collectibles is a better choice, but unless someone there is a good friend of yours, you can’t really trust them not to lowball you on values if they think they might be able to get something on the cheap.

So, why not do the research yourself? Go on the Internet and find out what similar items sold for. While that might give you a ballpark figure, it’s really not going to help you determine the actual value of the collection. Getting those items in the hands of a specialist is the only way to do that.

Military auctions, which deal with hundreds of military collectibles every day, often are your best choice. It’s to an auction house’s advantage to give you an accurate assessment of your collection. If the value isn’t there, they’ll tell you, because they don’t want to waste their time on items that aren’t going to make them money. But if the item is valuable, they’ll tell you that too, because they want you to consign the item with them. The more money you make, the more money they make.

So, you contact a military auction. Let’s say, you choose the company where Uncle Fred purchased much of his collection. They tell you they’re interested and would like to see some photos, which you send them via e-mail.

At this point, most auctions will tell you what they think some of the items will sell for, based on what similar items have sold for in the past. What they tell you sounds promising. Obviously, they would like you to consign the collection with them. But should you? Why not sell it on your own and save the 15- to 25-percent commission they charge?

What about this Luftwaffe helmet? Is it worth $50 or $500 or $5,000? It belonged to one of the air force’s ground troops. Although the helmets themselves are usually original, the decals and liners are often fakes. This one is real.

Again, let’s look at your options:

Of course, eBay is out of the question. First off, eBay doesn’t allow anything as politically incorrect as swastikas, and even if they did, you would be responsible for all photos, descriptions and shipping, which isn’t very practical for a large collection you know little about.

You could hold your own estate auction, but that would require hiring an auctioneer and renting space, which would eat into your profits. You could go to a local nonmilitary auction, but most of the people who attend those either have no knowledge or interest in militaria, or are stealth collectors looking for steals.

Another option would be to sell the collection at a military show. However, unless you have someone with you who knows the value of your items, you run the risk of being ripped off by collectors who know a lot more about your items than you do.

Which brings us back to the military auctions. Yes, if it’s an Internet-based auction, you will likely be charged a commission. However, that means the only thing you would be responsible for is packing up the collection and shipping the items to the auction house. It will handle everything else, from unpacking, to photographing, authenticating, describing, posting them on its website, storing the items and eventually shipping them to the buyers.

Once the items arrive at the auction house, about the only thing left for you to do is decide how much each item will be listed for, also referred to as the reserve. If this was your own collection, you would probably have a good idea what you paid for each item, what each is worth and how much you want for each one. However, when you’re selling an unknown collection, it’s usually best to leave the setting of reserves to the auction experts, many of whom have spent years—some of them decades—researching and authenticating militaria.

Since this is an auction, the idea is to set the reserve low enough to encourage people to bid. We’ve found that this is particularly effective with German items, due to their high desirability among collectors. Probably the biggest challenge to military auctions is convincing consigners to set lower-than-value reserves in order to trigger the bidding feeding frenzies that often occur during auctions.

Trying to convince someone to set a $500 reserve for a double decal SS helmet he bought for $5,000 some 10 years ago, often isn’t easy. But the reality is, if he sets the reserve at $5,000, he may get only a few bids. If he sets it at $500, he’ll likely get 20-30 bids and probably double what he originally paid for the helmet.

Military auctions aren’t for everyone. It’s probably not worth your time or the auction house’s to consign items that either have limited value or aren’t particularly collectible. A good auction company will tell you if that’s the case, because it’s to no one’s advantage to accept consignment that’s never going to sell.

But if the value is there, military auctions can be the best way to maximize your profits. As long as you do your homework and find a reputable firm, it’s usually a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Ken Hatfield, a former newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in military history, is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,”published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.

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One Response to “Selling Uncle Fred’s Militaria Collection—A How-To Guide”

  1. Gary says:

    Auctions can be good for some things, but be careful. I have dealt with dozens of auction houses all over the world and participated in hundreds of auctions, both as buyer and seller. Nearly all of them have pulled dirty tricks to either get consignments or to increase the amount of money they get. One very common trick is to tell you an item is worth a lot of money to get you to consign, only to cut the reserve in half right before the catalog goes to print. If you have little or nothing invested in the pieces that works out fine and can get a lot of interest and bids. However, if you have a lot into the item you risk losing your butt. Most auction houses encourage you to either set no reserve or a very low one. That is always good for them, because if it sells they make money. It isn’t always good for the seller. At an auction last month in the UK I saw a piece which would normally be worth about 3000 pounds sell for only 80 because there was no reserve and only one bidder. We have all heard of the pieces which bring record-breaking prices, but for every one of those there are a hundred which brought much less than the seller had expected.

    On the buying end, be careful with written bids. While auction houses are supposed to obtain an item for the buyer at the lowest possible price, a common practice is to actually start the bidding at your maximum bid even if nobody else has bid up to that. If nobody outbids you, you ended up buying it for a lot more than it should have cost. This is technically illegal, but is virtually impossible to prove. I have had it happen to me a couple times and when I tried to call the auction house on it they insisted they had other bids that drove my bid up. I knew they were lying, but couldn’t prove it. For that reason I will never leave a written bid and only bid in person or live on the phone. Live internet bidding is OK too, but if it is an item I really want, I do not trust that nothing will go wrong, and arrange for a phone bid instead. If I REALLY want something, I get on a plane and attend in person.

    If attending in person be careful of “air bids”. If they know you really want something, some auctioneers will invent bids to drive the price up. They will point to an imaginary person sitting behind you and you don’t know if their bid is real or not. That is why I stand at the back of the room, so I can see everything and everyone in the room. That still doesn’t prevent an auctioneer from being in cahoots with somebody else in the room, but it makes “air bidding” very difficult. Some auctioneers tell bidders to just hold their paddle in the air until they either win the lot or their maximum bid is exceeded. NEVER do this! If you do, you are almost guaranteed that if you win you will pay your maximum price for the item. Instead, lower your paddle after every bid and only raise it again when putting in another bid. I can’t tell you all the times I have seen bidders get screwed into paying more for an item than they had to by a shrewd and deceptive auctioneer.

    It also helps to be able to examine the piece yourself in person, as auction descriptions are often inaccurate- usually an honest mistake, but sometimes on purpose. I could name quite a few auction houses that knowingly list fakes or repros as the real thing. When I see this, I will never deal with them again. Every auction house will make mistakes and most of them are honest ones. They are human after all, but you need to be wary of the crooks because they are more prevalent than you may think.

    All that said, there is still a place for auctions as both buyer and seller. Mediocre pieces often do not do real well, but exceptional ones often do better at auction than anywhere else. If you have a large collection to sell it is often the easiest way to dispose of it. As a buyer I am of course looking for bargains, unless I am bidding for a client or it is something “must have”. Any given day an item can bring a fraction of its value or several times what it is worth. It all depends on who is bidding. If there is only one serious bidder the piece will sell for its reserve or opening bid. If there are two or more, the sky’s the limit. The uncertainty is part of what makes auctions interesting, but if you do it for a living (which I do) you need to be cautious, alert, and disciplined.

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