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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