World War Two Memorabilia Collecting is not a Quick Learn
World War Two-era newspapers are wonderful to have, but don’t bring a lot of money because there were so many printed and saved. I have found that issues depicting important events bring more money if they are from smaller-town newspapers–the smaller the better (i.e. the Oshgosh Herald would do better than the Chicago Times). This one is from the Hagerstown (Md.) Daily Mail May 7, 1945 issue.
I got a call recently from a potential customer for my antiques auction business. He was a youngish guy, who said he needed to downsize his collection of Second World War memorabilia. This sounded like (and was) a good call to get for my newly sprouted auction business, Hepburn and Co. Antiques.
My 30 years as a antiques and collectibles hobbyist, often spent lurking around yard sales and flea markets, have given me a good overview of what types of militaria have interest, as well as the range of prices things sell for. If you’re set up at a flea market, you’ll often get guys coming by asking “You have any military stuff? Helmets, daggers, knives…?”
That’s the most common lead-in line.
So when I arrived at my customer’s home, that’s what I expected he might have to consign. Contrary to my beliefs, there were no helmets or daggers, but there was a fascinating grouping of about 50 lots of assorted military pieces. And to get right to the point, I was amazed at how many completely different categories of World War Two collectibles I needed to research, and how very little I knew!
My consignor unpacked his collections, and laid them out on his den carpet. Lots of Bakelite, including hand-held radio speakers, and radio receivers that were mounted on the bulkheads of the lower decks of ships, or in the cockpits of fighter planes.
This pilot skull cap sold for $80, which I felt was under the money, considering its fine condition. It was made of heavy cotton and leather, with old rubber ear piece fittings for the radio head set. It was bought by a dealer, who will be reselling it, so I would imagine he is hoping to at least double his money.
Helmets alone are divided up first by countries, obviously. Beyond that however, the helmets may have been worn by any branch of the military or civilian corps performing any duty, by a soldier or officer of any rank, during any specific year, and have multiple variations to them. The condition is important, but also minor changes in manufacturing are important, as well as the color and patina of the metals used. Many of the above specifications are determined by decals and other markings on the helmet.
I knew those basics of WWII helmets. I knew that there was a huge chasm of values, with a simple one worth maybe $50, and others worth $50,000. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference by just looking at them. So when I got the call, and was offered “general World War Two” collectibles, it was clear that there would be a lot of research to do.
As it turns out, among the items that my consignor was offering, there were no rare examples of anything. Because he was the expert, he wasn’t going to hand me something with a hidden value. That being said, the items had definite value, and were in excellent condition. I knew that just advertising World War Two collectibles would draw a good crowd to the auction, and it did. The items sold well, mostly in the $50-to-$250 range. It was fun to be able to offer these pieces of history, in such good condition.
There were also numerous pieces of heavy china pieces made in Germany, some with swastika markings, others pieces with abbreviated markings that indicated whether they were made in occupied Germany, Belgium or someplace else.
There were two personal soldier collections, which were like a scrapbook, mounted nicely into a glass case. There were military buttons and badges, but also hundreds of photos and notations, describing how this particular solider arrived first in Africa, then spent time in Italy and Spain. Fascinating stuff!
The highlight of the collection was a hand-held Citizens Brigade siren. This was made by the Federal Electric Co. of Chicago, and brought $250 at reserve. The sound it makes when you slowly wind it up is amazing to hear–it is classic! When I did a demo of it during the auction, people thought they needed to evacuate.
World War Two was a gargantuan event, involving millions of military personnel from around the world. Basic math tells us that there is a generation that is passing today that may have stashed away their own artifacts from the war. They may have had a special connection and interest in the war and amassed huge collections of items over the years.
From an auctioneer’s standpoint, this affects both the supply and demand of military items from this particular war period. Establishing values is interesting, to say the least. When a novice collector, or an auctioneer or dealer, comes upon a collection like the one I did, all of these factors have to be taken into account. There may be personal World War Two items—such as trench shovels, parachutes, artillery shells, clothing, maps and any number of genuine war gear. These personal items won’t bring a dollar figure that will feel like it befits the item’s importance. On the other hand, there will be other items, bearing model numbers, patent dates and insignias that will bring mind-blowing prices.
The highlight of the collection was a hand-held Citizens Brigade siren. This was made by the Federal Electric Co. of Chicago, and brought $250 at reserve. The sound it makes when you slowly wind it up is amazing to hear! When I did a demo of it during the auction, people thought they needed to evacuate.
This small read leaflet, mounted nicely in a glass frame, was dropped by the Allies to warn citizens before an invasion, offering them safe passage or “Safe Conduct.”
The bottom line is that you can spend decades and learn all of this information in order to become an expert, or you can look up your items’ values here on the WorthPoint Worthopedia!
Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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