Monthly Archives: October 2013

Chiefly Limited: Space for Uniforms is at a Premium

Chief Machinist Mate bullion

Always an attention-grabber, vintage silver-bullion chief petty officer rating badges are highly collectible due to their intricate designs and usage of silver thread.

There are many challenges and hurdles for collectors of militaria. Not unlike the difficulties other collectors face, militaria requires research, authentication and a healthy bank account in order to enable the afflicted with the tools to be successful in such endeavors. One of the most significant universal hurdles collectors face is the ever-increasing deficit of square footage needed for storing and displaying collections.

I am no different from any other collector in that space is at a premium when it comes to safely storing my militaria. Without the proper controls being set in place, I could easily displace my closet space needed for hanging my wardrobe in favor of a growing assortment of vintage military uniforms. What sort of proper control could bring to bear the appropriate amount of pause before pulling the trigger on a deal to acquire the next amazing uniform?

My collection, almost from my entry into militaria, has grown slowly due to my tempered approach, focusing on specific areas of interest. Within those areas, I incorporate a finer set of specificity that helps me to keep things under control. Like many U.S. naval collectors, I enjoy uniforms, rates, shoulder insignia, collar and cap devices and other assorted pieces. However, I tend to direct my attention to specific rates when it comes to uniforms and badges. Mostly, my naval uniform collecting focuses on rates that were held by members of my family.

Only one member of member of my family ever advanced through the enlisted ranks to don the rocker-topped chevron of a chief petty officer, so my collection of CPO uniforms is very limited.

On occasion, I might be tempted to acquire an item that falls outside of my parameters if it possesses other aspects that make it too good to pass up as was the case of my most recent acquisition.

WWII CPO machinist's mate jacket

This CPO jacket has it all…well almost. It is an 8-button, tailor-made dress blue, World War II-era jacket complete with a silver bullion chief machinist’s mate rating badge and custom sewn-on ribbons.

A few weeks ago, a chief’s uniform jacket and cap became available that was just too good to pass up. The dress blue coat was an older, tailored eight-button version indicating that it was made during (or prior to) World War II. Affixed above the left breast pocket were 2-⅓ rows of custom (sewn-on) ribbons which clearly showed the chief as having served during and after World War I up to (and probably through) World War II. On the left sleeve were six hash marks showing that the chief served for at least 24 years. I have an affinity for bullion rates or insignia and the chief machinist’s mate insignia on this coat was the icing on the cake that put me over the top to make the decision to pick it up.

WWII CPO combination cap with white cover

Included with the CPO jacket was this WWII-era (wicker-framed) combination cap. The condition of the frame, visor and white cover are outstanding.

For many of us, researching veterans is a challenge and when we learn about the original owners (of military uniforms) were, there is a compulsion that pushes us to discover where the served and what they did during their time in uniform. When a uniform (that we acquire) is inscribed with a name, we are invariably driven to pursue the history in order to retain it with the item. Sadly, this jacket was unmarked which only meant that I wouldn’t have any further work once I had my hands on it.

Navy custom, sewn-on ribbon rack

The custom ribbon rack, though a little deformed from years of use and storage is complete with a Navy Good Conduct, WWI Victory, China Service, American Defense, American Campaign, Asiatic Pacific Campaign (with three campaign stars) and WWII Victory.

After it arrived, I was even more impressed by the condition of the jacket and the silver bullion of the rate badge. One glance at the Good Conduct ribbon (sans devices) and the six red hash marks, it is very apparent that the chief had some challenges with Navy regulations, staying out of trouble (when on liberty) or simply clashed with his superiors. I am sure his disciplinary record would make for an entertaining read. It is unfortunate that the jacket is forever decoupled from the sailor’s service. Regardless, the uniform is a great addition to my collection.

Now…where to put it?

Price, Provenance, Preservation and Procrastination

I have been doing some thinking lately about history and items that are specifically linked to notable events or people. One visit to just about any museum will yield an item that is connected in some form or fashion to history. The museum visitor can study the item, read the placard and then view the piece again, visualizing the associative connection.  Without the placard, the item is relegated to a mere visual enhancement within the display.

Personal narratives connected to objects have considerable meaning to the person in possession of the object. For a family member to whom the item was handed down, because of the value they place upon their family member’s service, the item possesses immeasurable financial worth. If that person decides to sell the item, the story and the family history drives up their asking price well-beyond the actual value a collector is willing to pay.

As someone who inherited a decent amount of militaria from my family members, I have pondered the historical aspects of the pieces that are now part of my collection. For much of these pieces, if they stand alone, they are nothing more than objects from history. When combined with the narrative and the connection to my respective relative, they have meaning. The challenge lies in establishing (and maintaining) the historical connection.

In collecting militaria, the adage, “buy the item, not the story” should be adhered to with prejudice. Regardless of the narrative being shared by the item’s present owner, without iron-clad documented proof, an item can only be valued on it’s individual properties (demand, scarcity, condition, etc.). For those who are new to militaria (or any other vintage collectibles), the term normally applied (regarding veracity of an item’s history) is provenance (not providence):

1: origin, source
2: the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature

Tattered U.S. Naval Ensign - Combat-used

U.S. naval ensign flown over a warship during a combat deployment in the Persian Gulf during the late 1980s. The tattered ends of the fly are due to wind damage sustained during round-the-clock exposure to the elements.

One item in my collection (shown above), a flag that was flown aboard a warship during a combat engagement, possesses no identifying marks that would be able to associate it with the ship nor the engagement. However, when I acquired the item, I corresponded with the seller and saved his account of how he obtained the piece. That correspondence combined with the standard military supply markings (NSN, etc.) stamped onto the flag’s hoist and the fact that I personally know the seller (an officer who served aboard the ship) and I was present when the flag was flown, provide me with assurance that the flag and its history are genuine.

Sadly, much of the narrative history that is associated with militaria is not documented. Veterans do not take the time to preserve the history by capturing how or why the item was important enough to hold onto for the decades that followed their military service. After the veteran passes away, their estate is inventoried and these military items are disposed by the surviving family members as the history faded to oblivion.

Small arms spent bullet

My uncle saved this spent small arms projectile in his personal effects along with ribbons, medals and collar devices. What he didn’t save was the history of the item or the reason for keeping it for so many years.

One of the most fascinating pieces that I inherited from one of my relatives was a small arms round that had clearly been fired as evident by the striations surrounding the projectile’s body and the mushed tip. My uncle saved this bullet among his ribbons, medals, collar devices and marksmanship awards since his separation from the Army in 1954. Since I received the box containing these objects a few years after he passed, the history surrounding the bullet was lost to time. He was awarded a Purple Heart medal during WWII but the details surrounding his wound were not in his record (his records were recreated by NARA – the originals were lost in the 1973 fire), so one assumption could be a connection to his combat wound.

The desired reader-response that I have for this article is many-fold. I hope that:

  • Veterans take the time to document the history surrounding each item in their collection.

  • Collectors, dealers, and family members preserve history of the items they acquire from veterans

  • Prospective buyers press militaria sellers for solid provenance when they ask premium prices for items (being sold with a story).