Another Person’s Treasure

Military collectibles may seem odd, but there’s a market for them.

Gas masks, officer hats, ancient muskets, Japanese sword guards-it’s surprising what you can find in a military surplus store.

What might also surprise you is that some people really want that stuff.

“It’s mostly the historical aspect,” said Andrew Turner, a 17-year-old collector of military items, about why he collects. “You have something in your hands that is so old, and it has been a part of history in some way.”

A collection of old military officer's hats at collectibles store Army Outiftters. Some people become passionate about collecting old military stuff.Among other things in his collection, Turner has a Russian commissar’s hat, a pair of goggles the Soviets used to watch atomic bomb tests, and a large ammunition box that he uses as a chair.

Turner started collecting when he was given a few things-a hat from the Korean War and a Pakistani jumpsuit from the Indo-Pakistan War stands out-for his eighth birthday, and has continued collecting ever since.

His love for things military started even earlier. His parents didn’t want him watching cartoons, so he and his cousin turned to their grandfather and his historical stories for entertainment.

“We found D-Day infinitely more interesting than Superman,” Turner said.

Turner’s not alone with his affinity for things martial.

“I was that kid who was always dressing up and playing soldiers as a child,” said Adam Chamberlain, a 22-year-old military enthusiast. “I figured I would outgrow it and I still haven’t.”

When Chamberlain was a teenager, he met a Vietnam War veteran and immediately became fascinated by that war, reading every book he could find on Vietnam. Unlike some collectors, he is mostly into the practical side of what he gets. He likes to buy things he can really use.

“You can bet your life it’s going to last longer than anything you can buy off the shelf” at a place like Canadian Tire, he said.

Even though not everyone collects military items for the same reasons, collectors seem to have a few common traits. All of the people spoken to for this article either have or want to have military service. Chamberlain wants to go into the army reserves. Turner wants to be a UN peacekeeper.

Many also have family members in the military. Bob French, who works at the military surplus shop Save More Sports Store and used to be a Canadian army reservist, had family in both world wars, and ended up with some of their old things.

“When I was a kid growing up, we used to use the helmets and play army,” French said, smiling. “Helmets, gas masks, jackets-all that stuff.”

Chamberlain had a few great-uncles fight in World War II. Turner’s grandfather fought in North Africa in the Second World War. French said that they find some people come in with things they got from relatives with military service that they now want to know about.

Though antiques passed down through the generations tend to be the real deal, there’s no guarantee what you pick up at a military surplus store will be the genuine artifact. But, for the true enthusiasts, it’s not too much of a worry.

They know their stuff.

While showing a visitor around the store, French was able to rattle off the national origins of helmets in the store with no hesitation. When looking for an authentic Vietnam era knife, Chamberlain researched the type of markings that should on the handle and how the grip on it should be wrapped. Turner knows to examine subtle details in a helmet’s lining to see if it’s genuine or not.

Buying guidebooks and doing your research is incredibly important, according to Dave Hiorth, owner of Army Outfitters, a military collectibles store. Knowing that, say, more Third Reich memorabilia gets faked than any other kind can help you when looking for authentic German gear.

“You will find more Third Reich stuff, real or not, in the States than you will in Germany,” Hiorth said.

Authenticity is important to collectors, and no one wants to spend good money on something that’s fake.

Because military collecting does take good money.

Turner spends about $100 a month on his collection, which ends up being a fair bit of his paycheque. One piece in Hiorth’s store, a Napoleonic musket, costs $5,000.

The Internet, especially EBay, have driven the prices sky high, according to both French and Hiorth. French only dabbles in collecting because of the price.

EBay drives the price of collectibles up, according to Hiorth, because the demand now comes from all over the world. With higher demand, prices already start climbing. But EBay, being open to bids, results in determined buyers having to shell out even more to get the piece they desire.

Hiorth put one piece he had-an Indonesian beret-up for auction on eBay and sold it for over $500. He hadn’t expected to get much of anything for it.

“I didn’t set the price,” Hiorth said. “EBay drove it up.”

People do still spend money on military items, no matter the price, and exactly why is a mystery for some. Hiorth has no idea why he started collecting back when he was a teenager. One of the biggest collectors Hiorth knows of, out in Alberta, has had no family history of service in the Armed Forces.

“Some people just get the collecting bug,” Hiorth said.

He said he had heard about an auction at British auction house Sotheby’s where modern art, which Hiorth found ugly, sold for tons of money.

“But people buy this stuff, and they’re happy to have it,” he said. “It’s the same thing with military stuff. One person’s crap is another person’s treasure.”

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Posted: Oct 1 2008 5:41 pm
Filed under: Features