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).

Posted on October 3, 2013, in General Militaria Collecting and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Sydney Hennessy

    Excellent and helpful blog. And well written!

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