From Roman centurion helmets to flight jackets, the world of military collectibles is immensely broad. The category spans a scope as wide as the countless conflicts that have defined human history and has a large and vibrant community of collectors, full of knowledgeable history buffs. Here, we’ll explore the vast world of military and wartime collectibles, colloquially known as “militaria”, and highlight some of the most popular subcategories within this fascinating and sometimes controversial field.
Types of Military Collectibles
We can broadly split militaria into antique military memorabilia, items from before World War I and vintage military collectibles spanning the conflicts of the 20th century. The largest reason for the split, other than the wide popularity of World War I and World War II memorabilia, is how the introduction of mass manufacturing created a surplus of militaria from this period. While there are certainly priceless pieces to be found from the World Wars, the sheer size and scope of the conflicts made a plethora of inventory available to collectors. For example, the United States Military gave out a World War II Victory Medal to all sixteen million members of the armed forces at the end of the war, meaning such pieces are relatively common on the secondary market. While lovely to look at and historically significant, even in its original box, the medal is only valued at about seventy dollars.
Within those broad categories we can further sort militaria.
- Military helmets from throughout history have always been among the most popular collectibles.
- Military uniforms are also consistently sought after, though they can be difficult to care for and display for a beginner.
- Then there are the military decorations, including medals and buttons.
- Finally, there are antique weapons, which include both historically significant blades and firearms.
Military Helmets and Uniforms
Helmets are always a popular military collectible. Designed to be durable, helmets tend to last much longer and require less care than other common collectibles. A helmet often symbolized the military force that wore it, making a soldier recognizable to allies and enemies alike. WWII helmets are experiencing a resurgence at the moment, driven largely by younger generations discovering the treasures their grandparents brought home from the front. Helmets have been used since ancient conflicts, but only in more recent history have they been mass produced for infantry members, providing collectors with a bevy of beautiful pieces to care for.
The American M1
When it comes to vintage helmets, none is more popular than the American M1—the classic domed olive green helmet used from World War II through the Vietnam War by the American military. A standard issue infantry helmet in decent condition will cost less than $100, but the cost will increase with more specific painted insignia and nonstandard issues. For example, an M1 helmet painted with the insignia for the Navy Seabees will sell for approximately $100 more than an unpainted helmet in similar condition, while a paratrooper’s helmet with intact netting wrapped around the helmet can reach into the low thousands.
British and Prussian Helmets
Other popular vintage helmets include the British World War I Brodie helmet, known to the Americans as the doughboy helmet and the Germans as the salad bowl. Brodie helmets in good condition usually reach the low to mid hundreds of dollars at auction. The Prussian Pickelhaube Helmet, with its distinctive spiked top, is always sought after as. These Prussian Helmets were predominately used before World War I but were still used by the German army well into the Great War.
Antique helmets are a lot less common, though they make a prominent addition any militaria collection. Consider going far, far back in history and picking out a Greek Corinthian helmet with a smooth dome and a prominent nose guard. Corinthian helmets can often realize $60,000-100,000, or sometimes even more, at auction. Roman helmets are slightly less expensive, though you’ll need to sort through many reproductions to find an authentic piece. Unfortunately, if you see those brilliant red plumes on a Centurion Galea helmet, it is almost certainly a reproduction, as authentic plumes did not survive the passage of time.
Uniforms—complete or partial—also make a notable addition to any military collection. Similarly to M1 helmets, a standard issue infantry World War I or II uniform isn’t going to be very costly. Nevertheless, a good American World War II uniform jacket—the most recognizable piece of a uniform—will cost somewhere in the low hundreds. Be careful not to purchase a replica by mistake. The uniforms are often lovingly recreated, but no matter how authentic, they can’t replace an original.
What really makes a uniform valuable is the person who wore it. For example, a jacket worn by General Dwight D. Eisenhower sold for $45,000 at a 2009 auction.
Military medals, a piece of decorative metal meant to hang from a ribbon, can be a beautiful way to honor veterans with your collection. Similar to military uniforms, value is more determined by who received the medal rather than the piece itself. Unlike uniforms, it’s rarely the fame of the recipient that determines demand, but rather what their story was. A rare but anonymous medal may sell for less than a more common award that has a compelling story behind it.
Condition also matters quite a bit with medals. Medals, like coins, are graded by professionals on a scale from ‘fine’ to ‘mint’. A collector should also ask whether the medal has its original ribbon, documentation and box of issue.
The Most Expensive Military Medal Ever Sold
One of the rarest medals sought after by collectors is the Victoria Cross. Since 1856, only 1,358 have been made and issued to members of the British Armed Forces for valor in the presence of the enemy. One of the most expensive single military medals ever sold was a Victoria Cross awarded posthumously to New Zealander Captain Alfred Shout for his service during the battle at Gallipoli in 1915. It was sold for approximately $550,000. The Victoria Cross almost always sells for over $2,000, but this one was particularly compelling, with its story of a single man leading a charge to retake the trenches from the enemy. Combined with its perfect condition, you could say the Alfred Shout Victoria Cross is a holy grail of military memorabilia.
Antique Military Arms
Weaponry is the final category of militaria we’ll look at. When specifically looking at military weapons, we’re considering antique guns, rifles and muskets along with ceremonial swords, cavalry swords and sabers. The quality, age, companion sheath, and original owner all are taken into account when pricing a weapon. As with medals and uniforms, the original owner can be an especially determinative factor when valuing an antique weapon. For example, Napoleon’s gold encrusted sword is worth $6,000,000 because it was Napoleon’s sword, no matter how beautiful it might be.
A classic example of an antique sword is the cavalry sword, which you will find quite often when looking for antique weapons. Cavalry swords feature a long straight blade with one edge and were used primarily throughout the 19th century, particularly in the Napoleonic wars. The most famous example is perhaps the 1796 Heavy Cavalry Sword, created by the British Army and used by the Germans, the Swedes and Portuguese throughout the following century. The cavalry saber is a similar weapon, but features a curved blade instead of a straight one. These sabers were favored by the American Cavalry during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. You can typically find well-kept cavalry sabers and swords in their original sheaths for a few thousand dollars at auction.
Some other popular military blades include trench knives—a short blade with a brass knuckle grip—from World War I and the World War II Fairbairn-Sykes commando knife—issued to both British and American marines. Both can typically be found for under $3,000. Finally, no collection of military blades would be complete without a bayonet. Bayonets are dulled blades attached to the ends of rifles and muskets and were, for centuries, the primary weapon of the infantry. But a bayonet really needs to be paired with an antique firearm to make a compelling display.
The field of antique firearms is very large, but limiting your options to military weapons will narrow the field. If you’re looking at antiques from before the 19th century you will be primarily looking at muskets—a general name for any long gun with a flintlock. Antique muskets can get expensive, though they rarely surpass $2,000 for an unadorned weapon. When evaluating antique firearms from the 19th century you’ll start to see familiar names in the line up like Colt, Remington and Winchester. These famous gun manufacturers got their start in the 1800s and many of their early wares made up the arms of the United States military. As always, beware of replicas and check out our Antique Gun Collector’s Price Guide to learn more.
Remember, if you plan to collect antique firearms you must make sure to be aware of the laws regarding possession in your country. Some locales allow the limitless collection of antique firearms from before a certain year. For example, the threshold in the United States is 1899, while weapons from World War I and II will be subject to standard local gun laws.
The World of Militaria
There’s no wrong way to start your military memorabilia collection. Hopefully, while exploring the militaria market, you’ll feel a bit inspired to dive into the deep and complicated history of the many conflicts that have shaped our world. Wherever your interests lie, there’s surely an element of militaria that will spark your imagination. But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of militaria is the community of enthusiastic collectors you’ll find along the way, and the stories of the people behind the pieces that inspire them.
Looking for more? Browse Military and Wartime Collectibles for sale at auction now on Invaluable.
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