Militaria as a Collectible
Properties used by militia and military forces over the centuries have been and are still being sought after by collectors. The field of interest ranges from personal gear, letters written by individuals during military service, official documents, field equipment to include uniforms and all types of weapons to include knives, swords and sabers, bayonets, hand guns and rifles.
While these items have always been of interest to museums and collectors, world events in recent years have intensified the quest to collect military artifacts. The 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Normandy landings of World War II, the publicity surrounding the opening of and the planning of new military museums, the military responses to terrorist attacks and the recent publicity concerning the dedication of the National World War II Memorial have all been contributing factors to this renewed interest. And the passing of aged veterans is bringing many historic items into the market place, to include German and Japanese "souvenirs" brought home from the battlefield.
There seems to be a renewed interest in Civil War memorabilia, particularly that manufactured by or used by the Confederacy. Swords, sabers and other collectibles, particularly if there is credible provenance, are rapidly increasing in value. Recent appraisals covering that period include a saber carried by Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, a walking stick that belonged to Admiral Farragut of New Orleans fame and a military commission appointing a Union colonel to the rank of brevet general and signed by President Andrew Jackson.
Values have risen sharply for military insignia and gear used by the Special Forces branch of the U.S. Army, which was created in the 1960s. The U.S. Army's museum at Fort Bragg, N.C., (the John F. Kennedy Special Forces Museum) specializes in not only properties used by the Special Forces since that time but materials of earlier similar groups that operated clandestinely starting with the Indian scouts of early frontier days and that of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) of World War II renown. The museum’s holdings consist of a total of some 9,000 items. Appraisals have recently included and valued a collection of OSS special weapons and spy equipment and the personal gear of several members of the famous "Jedburgh" OSS teams that operated behind enemy lines in Europe.
Contributing to the increasing values of military memorabilia in the hands of the public and collectors is the increasing activity generated by museums to acquire military artifacts. The relatively new D-Day Museum in New Orleans, sponsored by Stephen Ambrose, is actively collecting for additional exhibits. Of our armed forces, the U.S. Army alone has some 45 museums located on various army installations as well as many holdings at the national level, including some 12,000 paintings, prints and sketches of military interest. This collection will be housed in a new national museum currently under construction at Fort Belvoir, Va., in the vicinity of the Nation’s Capitol. Both the Air Force and Navy also have a complex of museums and the U.S. Marine Corps is enlarging its museum facility at Quantico in Va.
A number of recent appraisals covered an early span of history commencing with a presentation silver tea caddy and tankard that belonged to British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, early military commissions variously signed by Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, an 1812 letter on the stationery of the Minister of War to Napoleon I and a hand written response, dated signed and sealed in the handwriting of Napoleon. An interesting collection recently examined included numerous 18th- and 19th-century French, English and German military headgear consisting of dress hats and helmets as well as portraits and paintings of military figures and battle scenes along with models of early naval vessels of European origin.
Early flags are appearing in increasing numbers, many of military significance. One examined recently had 45 stars and had flown on the USS Maine prior to its sinking in Havana Harbor. It was accompanied by the dress uniform of an officer who fortuitously had been on shore leave during the explosion. Also: a Confederate battle flag from an Alabama battalion circa 1861, the U.S. flag that was recovered by a U.S. Navy signalman when his Higgins landing craft was sunk on the Utah beachhead and the 48-star flag that flew on the USS Hornet aircraft carrier on the day the US Navy first bombed Tokyo.
World War II military artifacts appear to be of increasing interest at this time. Some important items or collections examined in the recent past include: the dress sword that belonged to then Admiral Kimmel who was commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941; the dress uniform and other personal property belonging to Admiral Kidd, who was on his flag ship, the USS Arizona, when it was sunk at Pearl Harbor (The property was salvaged from his state room. As a matter of interest, he was the first participant in World War II to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, which was awarded posthumously.); a collection of items acquired by General Anthony McAuliffe of World War II fame who was given the ultimatum on Christmas Eve 1944 to surrender his division at Bastogne during the "Battle of the Bulge" (His terse response of "Nuts" followed him through his post-war career as commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe when he was the recipient of dozens of plaques, cartoons and memorabilia citing his famous response.); and the World War II military paraphernalia of a U.S. Army general who served as chief of Signal Corps operations through the North African campaign and similarly later in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO).
In collecting and protecting militaria, the rules apply as they would for other rare or valuable items. Paper and textiles should be stored or mounted in an acid-free and UV-protected environment. Metal objects need to be stored or displayed in an environmentally controlled climate to prevent deterioration.
It is apparent that the collecting of militaria and recounting its history is entertaining and as the values escalate it will undoubtedly continue to be a rewarding pastime.
John V. Lanterman, FASA, is a Fellow of the American Society of Appraisers. He is accredited in antiques and decorative arts and residential contents. He maintains his appraisal practice in Bethesda, Md.