Category Archives: Collecting Risks

Knowledge Versus Ignorance: Criticizing Displays of Historical Artifacts


I have a steadily growing respect for those who take the time to research, organize and arrange, transport and display their collections to share with an audience. Depending on the artifacts and the means of displaying, it takes an incredible amount of time to prepare for a public showing, ensuring that each piece or groupings of items are carefully organized and placed to convey the display’s central message or theme. Regardless of the measure of attention to detail one can employ in assembling a gathering of artifacts to display, mistakes can and often do get made.

Invariably, one can find historical inaccuracies with any re-telling or portrayal of an event, placement and descriptions of artifacts, despite the research and effort for meticulous representations. I have visited some of the finest museums that employ staff and volunteers with more than a hundred years of combined education and experience in researching and curating artifacts and yet they still can assemble displays with pieces that are incorrect. There have been times where I engaged with museum personnel in order to correct the issue, providing sources in an effort to back my assertions. In those instances, I have been thanked for the information and corrections were subsequently made while some times, I have been met with valid contradictory facts (though they have agreed with the information I provided) that support their reasons for decisions to keep the displays as established.

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.

The above saying has many unfounded attributions (Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, etc.) and I chose not to provide a source as doing so is folly. However, the lack of a verifiable originator is as irrelevant as the sentiment is poignant. I take this saying to heart, especially when providing any measure of correction an expert in their field or vocation. To approach a museum curator, historian, educator or serious artifact collector with contrary facts that fly in the face of their efforts requires assured knowledge, facts and a tactfully respectful approach. Before I open my mouth, I want to be certain that my suspicions and thoughts are indeed correct.

The WWI Army uniform belonged to my great uncle who served as an artilleryman in France during the war.

Helmets from three of the combatant nations in the war are (left to right): French, U.S., German. The bayonet in the foreground is a French Lebel.

For nearly the entire month of September, my collection of World War I artifacts was publicly displayed at my state’s largest fair. I chose to select every piece that is related to the Great War and organize, arrange and display them to honor the centennial of the United States’ participation (along with U.S. military artifacts, I included the Canadian Forestry Corps pieces to honor my maternal great grandfather’s WWI service). Included in my display were many artifacts that I inherited from family members who served in that war along with pieces that I collected due to my specific interest in this very troubling era of modern U.S. history. Included within the exhibit were three original WWI uniforms; one, worn by my great uncle when he served in a US Army artillery regiment and the other two were U.S. Navy enlisted jumper tops, complete with rating badges. At the conclusion of the fair, I went to breakdown the display and retrieve my collection at which time, the coordinator handed personal notes from spectators and folks with questions or are in need of assistance with their own artifacts. Among the notes were two criticisms: one that didn’t agree with the placement of the placard that described the entire collection (he thought it should have been adjacent to my uncle’s uniform) while the other person took the time to point out the inaccuracies with the rating badges on the two WWI navy uniforms.

The two WWI uniforms that raised questions from an unknown critic. This display was called out for having the incorrect rating badges on the incorrect sleeves regardless of them being original and untouched from the veterans who wore them during the Great War.

“Your rates are on the wrong arm,” the expert began his note. “Crows face forward, ” he continued, “there are right arm ‘rates’ and left arm (ratings),” the unnamed critic stated. When I first read through his note, I stopped and looked over at the display (I hadn’t’ yet removed the arrangement of uniforms on their mannequins nor the arrangement of period-correct rating badges on the bottom of the case) and stared for a moment and re-read the note again. “What is he referring to?
I thought to myself. “Does he think that I sewed these badges on rather than the sailors who originally wore the uniforms?”

I have authored several articles regarding U.S. Navy rating badges (see below) and have been collecting them since I obtained my first one through advancement during my own service in the Navy when I was promoted to petty officer third class. A few years later, I inherited my maternal grandfather’s World War II uniforms that were complete and had his Ship’s Cook first class rating badges affixed to the left sleeves. In my collection are rating badges dating to 1905, post-1913, post-1922 and on up to the 1960s. I own several hundred badges including some of the rarest ratings that existed during these eras. In my collection are several uniforms from this same era (I don’t have anything dating from pre-1900…yet) and all of it has been thoroughly researched. Though some of my collecting colleagues would infer that I possess expert knowledge in this area, there are many who have far greater knowledge and experience researching the history of enlisted marks and whose published works I often reference. I concede that there is always someone with more knowledge in any given field of research and study. For this reason, I continued to ponder the unknown sender’s critical note.

As I started to dissect the message in an effort to lend a measure of credence or perhaps to give him some benefit of doubt, I analyzed his usage of terminology along with his stated “facts” as I attempted to understand his perspective. One term that he repeatedly misused was “rates.” Though the critic understood certain facts surrounding rating badges, he didn’t understand that there is a distinct difference between two very important terms: rate and rating (see: U.S. Navy Officer Ranks and Enlisted Rates – navy.mil). Sailors (and U.S. Navy collectors) don’t refer to the insignia worn on uniforms as “rates” but rather, rating badge.

The unknown critic pointed out that on my two WWI navy uniform tops, the rating badges were affixed to the left sleeve and that the eagle (universally referred to as a crow) was facing the the rear, vice forward as is seen on present-day uniforms. The inference being made is that the eagles on both badges, each affixed to their respective uniform’s left sleeves, are facing to the rear (the beak of the eagle is pointing towards”his” left wing).

In concert with the eagle’s directional facing, the critic suggested that there are rating badges (“rates”) for either the left or right arms. In the uniform regulations of 1886, specifications were made that established the eagle left-facing with its wings pointed horizontally to the sides. Also, the regulations specified that petty officers of the starboard watch were to wear rating badges on their right sleeves while the left sleeve was to be used for those assigned to the port watch. This arrangement of the rating badges remained in place until the publication of the U.S. Navy uniform regulations of January 25, 1913 called for a change in the location of rating badges so that the were no longer worn on the sleeves corresponding to assigned watches. Right arm badges were to signify men of the Seamen Branch; left arm rating badges were to be used by personnel of the Artificer Branch, Engine Room Force, and all other petty officers. The eagle continued to face left on all rating badges.

The last statement on the critic’s note, “1941 is when it all changed” is only partially correct as it disregards both the 1886 and 1913 regulations and focuses on the changes made just prior to World War II. Within the May 13, 1941 regulations it was specified that the eagle was to face to the left in the rates comprising the Seaman Branch: Boatswain Mate, Turret Captain, Signalman, Gunner’s Mate, Fire Controlman, Quartermaster, Mineman and Torpedoman’s Mate. All other rating badges (worn on the left sleeve) were to have an eagle facing to the right – or towards the front of the uniform. With the release of the navy uniform regulations of April 2,1949, the right arm rates were disestablished, moving all enlisted ratings to the left sleeve and the eagle’s beak pointed to the right wing.

Neither of the two WWI navy uniforms within my Great War display had rating badges from the Seaman Branch – one, an Electrician’s Mate 2/c (with a radio technician distinguishing mark) from the Artificer Branch and the other a Ship’s Cook 2/c was part of the Special Branch.

If the critic had left his contact information, I might have considered a gentle discussion to provide a better understanding of enlisted Navy rate and rating badge history along with authoritative references. Rather than to take offense at the man’s note, I can surmise that he cares about accuracy in displayed naval artifacts enough to correct me. However, his omission of his name, email or phone number might be more indicative of the equivalent of a blind grenade-toss at something he has great disdain for. Unfortunately, I will never know.

I feel compelled to offer my gratitude to this unknown person for giving me a reason to pause for a self-assessment as I strive for accuracy with my collecting, research, writing and displaying these treasure. His note also serves as a reminder for me to maintain humility when I observe historical inaccuracies and to always measure myself before opening my mouth or firing off an ill-informed message.

Related Veteran’s Collection Articles:

Reference:

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An Open Invitation for Trouble: Risks of Sharing Militaria Collections Online


These named WWII Navy uniforms were passed down to me from my grandfather who served in the South Pacific.

Today’s post is a bit of a departure from my typical collecting discussion and is something that collectors should consider in term the various risks that exist as they share photos of their collections online. Some of those risks include:

  1. The family comes calling.
  2. Thieves trace their way to your collection in order to steal from you.
  3. Claims (false or otherwise) are made that your item does not belong to you.
  4. Image theft:
    1. Used for fraudulent militaria sales.
    2. Used without photo attribution.

Without belaboring every possible scenario, this post will focus on the four most common potentially negative outcomes.

The Family Comes Calling

Ship’s Cook/Baker, C. A. Erickson is clearly stenciled inside this WWI dress blue uniform jumper.

My collection is predominantly made up of uniforms that belonged to one of my relatives and the items were passed down to me due to my obvious interest in preserving family history. However, I have made some purchases of uniforms and other personal (named) items that belonged to veterans with no connection to me or my family. Uniforms are normally named (the service member placed identifying marks on the piece – normally on the manufacturer’s label or stenciled in a prominent location on the inside of the garment) with the troop’s last name, first and an initial and possibly their service number (there are variations and exceptions). When one goes as far as to share the identification details of a specific item online (as I did for articles such as, Militaria Rewards – Researching the Veteran and Academic Baseball Award: Rear Admiral Frank W. Fenno’s Baseball Career), I am risking someone reaching out to me to make a claim that the piece belongs in their family’s possession.

Virtually anyone can make a claim to the veteran’s items and state that they are the rightful heir of something that I purchased from a dealer, antiques store or private collector. Within our community there has been lengthy discussion surrounding what one should do if this situation is presented to them by a supposed family member. The stories (of the militaria leaving the family) are varied, ranging from theft to an heir not possessing interest in the military history (who sells the items rather than to pass them to another family member) to an unintended sale. It is easy to be sympathetic but that can be problematic for the collector as it is difficult to determine if the alleged family member is who they say they are (rather than another collector applying guilt and sympathy to get their hands on a desired piece). Here is a fantastic piece that was written regarding what family members should consider prior to contacting a collector in seeking the “return” of a family item.

With regards to the Admiral Fenno medal in the article listed above, I was contacted by a family member that was surprised to find that this medal was not in the family’s hands, let alone that it even existed. I was asked how it came to be in my hands (purchased from a picker who bought it at an estate sale) and speculated that the medal was sold along with other household belongings without any family members realizing what it was. The conversation was friendly between us as we exchanged a few emails. However, the person that I was communicating with wanted me to call them to chat about it further (which left me sensing that there was a request forthcoming). What I was thankful for was that the family member did convey additional history associated with the admiral that wasn’t available through research means. As of now, I am still hesitant to make the call as I don’t want to be asked to give it up. I suspect that the conversation could have been far more direct and uncomfortable between us so I am thankful with what I experienced.

Thieves Target Your Collection
I don’t actively worry about this possibility but I know that it happens. The general public may not realize the monetary value that many militaria pieces possess but people who lack moral compasses understand fully, what collectors are willing to pay for certain pieces. With WWII helmets that are attributable to veterans from well-known battles or engagements bringing sale prices in excess of $5-6,000, or a purple heart medal to a USS Arizona sailor who was KIA during the 7 December attack fetching double that amount, theft is a definite risk. I have read numerous news stories about break-ins and burglaries that involve the theft of militaria from homes. Not only are collectors at risk but veterans themselves are often subjected to these horrible actions:

On occasion, there are successful recoveries:

We have to be careful of who we invited into our homes being careful to limit visual access to these treasures when we answer the door to the furnace repairman, the plumber or the appliance technician. While they may be fantastic at their jobs, they might also be unwitting participants in tipping off burglars to the militaria inside your home. In addition, collectors need to consider how they share their pieces on social media. If they provide their real names and hometown locations in their public profiles, they could be providing a picking list and a treasure map to these seekers. If one shares their collection online, they should lock down their profiles and limit who can see personal details. Also, be cognizant of what is visible in the photos themselves for easily recognizable landmarks that can be used for locating.

Claims (false or otherwise) Attempting to Invalidate Collectors’ Ownership
In light of the previously listed risk, legally purchasing militaria can very well end up being an illegal transaction. In other words, you could be the recipient of stolen property. There are occasions that arise that upon sharing your collection item online, you face a challenge from someone claiming to be the legal and rightful owner. When one recognizes the flow of militaria from seller to buyer and that by the time it ends up in your own collection, it could have changed hands a few times. The piece could very well have been stolen from the veteran or a subsequent collector before the present owner received it. Imagine the thief selling the item to a picker who, in turn sells the piece at a flea market. That buyer then lists the piece on eBay where you, the collector purchases the piece in good faith. You proudly share your “score” with other collectors when you are contacted by the theft victim. What then?

As with essentially all collecting, the above scenarios are very real. What do you, the collector do? Imagine you paid thousands of dollars for the item? Do you simply surrender it to the victim? How do you know that this person is being honest? How can the claims being made be verified?

When a claim is made against your collection (be it the family, the veteran, a collector, etc.), the best action you can take is to be patient and consider the facts. Does the claimant possess photos of the item? Has a police report been filed (with a genuine case number) that matches the story? Did you record the details (dates, seller, price paid, etc.) of your transactions when you purchased the item? False claims are a part of this hobby and the unscrupulous folks thrive by preying upon good-natured, honest people (consider what happened to Phil Collins, the musician from the rock band, Genesis: Showing Off Your Collection is Not Without Risk). Collectors need to employ the same due diligence used to make sound purchases when these situations arise. I don’t profess to have the answers for every possible scenario but I am prepared as much as I can be to protect my investments.

Image theft
One of the risks that I want to focus my attention on surrounds the photography that we share of the items in our collections. I imagine that most people don’t consider the copyright protection that exist upon the creation of a photograph. Your photographs that you compose and capture belong to you whether you share them online or publish them in print. No one can reproduce (copy with their camera, grab a screenshot, etc.) without your permission (there are caveats to this and it can be a rather lengthy exploration of the laws and case law). One of the common actions that take place online, on eBay in particular, are the unscrupulous sellers who use other people’s photographs to defraud potential buyers by misrepresenting a similar item or selling taking money for an item that they do not possess and have no intention of delivering.

Another aspect of photo theft is that other collectors or hobbyists take your photos without asking or providing attribution. I have discovered use of my images in a few different manners ranging from a news outlet to sports bloggers (a few of my on-field sports photos were used for both without permission nor attribution).  Fellow enthusiasts can also engage in these practices. In the recent months, I have discovered that one of my images of a Third Reich piece in my collection (I inherited it from a family member who served in the European Theater during WWII) has been used throughout the internet without my consent. The image was lifted from one of my Veterans’ Collection posts and has been used to illustrate this particular piece as it pertains to WWII German militaria. Understanding that it is quite a rare item, it doesn’t bother me (as much) when used in this capacity. When I found it being shared on an image-sharing site and being passed off as that person’s own work, it ruffled my feathers a bit.

The photo in question is of a Nazi Socialists Party Security armband that I also have hosted within my Flickr site:

National Socialist Party Security Personnel armband.

One of the sites where my image has been altered (they removed it from the background) has a massive online reference library of Third Reich armbands:

My armband photo has been altered and is listed as “NSDAP Ordnungsdienst Security” on the reference page without my permission.

There are several locations where I have found my photo being used sans permission. Seeing it displayed as another person’s property (they have it listed with “Some rights reserved”) is very infuriating:

My stolen image of my armband as it sits on someone else's Flickr account.

My stolen image of my armband as it sits on someone else’s Flickr account.

Collectors must always be vigilant and cautious about how they share their passion with others. Using the internet as the vehicle for exposing your pieces and discoveries is very easy and may seem to be the safe pursuit, but there is no real insulation from those who would seek to do you or your collection harm.