Category Archives: Militaria Collecting and the Law
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:
- The family comes calling.
- Thieves trace their way to your collection in order to steal from you.
- Claims (false or otherwise) are made that your item does not belong to you.
- Image theft:
- Used for fraudulent militaria sales.
- 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
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:
- Local Marine’s military uniform and medals stolen Independence Day morning
- Former U.S. Marine says con man stole his military medals and uniforms
On occasion, there are successful recoveries:
- 24 military medals returned after being stolen during California dam evacuation
- Veteran’s Stolen Service Medals Returned
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
When citizens perceive what they think to be a travesty or tragedy, they scream to their lawmaking-representatives to create laws in order to make changes that will help them to feel good that they did something positive. It is a common action among Americans to want to bring about changes, to right wrongs and to make society more safe. We feel better about ourselves when we stood up and participated in the process. Sadly, the only thing positive with many of these actions are that those scant few people can feel good while the rest of society has to deal with the negative ramifications and unintended consequences brought about by these actions.
This week new federal legislation was proposed by U.S. Representative Paul Cook (R-CA-8) to address what he and a select few Americans feel is a troubling trend – the sale of Purple Heart Medals (PHM) among collectors. HR 6234 (known as the “Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act”) if passed would “prevent merchants from profiteering from the sale of military-issued Purple Hearts, eliminating the market and making it easier to return them to their rightful owners.” Taken at face-value, this seems to be a very noble goal. Who wouldn’t want Purple Heart Medals returned to their rightful owners?
“These military collectors cheapen the Purple Heart by buying and selling this symbol of sacrifice like a pack of baseball cards,” said Cook, who served 26 years in the Marine Corps before joining Congress, rising to the rank of colonel and receiving two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained during the Vietnam War. – See: Selling Purple Hearts would be illegal if this bill becomes law
One of the underlying beliefs of the bill’s sponsor and his supporters is that militaria collectors are profit-seeking undesirables who buy and sell these vaunted medals, capitalizing on the specific aspects surrounding the awardees’ circumstances (for which the medal was given) such as:
- If the veteran was killed in action (KIA)
- If the battle in which the veteran was wounded (mortally or otherwise) was notable or pivotal
- If the veteran was note-worthy:
- a famous or semi-famous service member
- a member of a notable military unit or vessel
In viewing advertisements of PHMs for sale, these facts are often presented in the medals’ descriptions not too dissimilar to features of a used automobile, rendering them seemingly insensitive and cold. I admit that even I am put-off when I see how they are exhibited as available for purchase.
Regardless of the manner in which the medals are listed, most of the collectors that I have encountered are not only sensitive regarding the nature of these medals and the reason that they exist and are awarded, they go to great lengths to gather the facts surrounding the medals in order to emphasize the veterans’ service and the gravity of the price that is repeatedly paid by them for our nation. The steps that are taken by these collectors in order to preserve the history is extremely honoring and very sensitive towards the veteran and the surviving family members (in the case of KIAs-awarded medals).
There are many militaria collectors who also wore the uniform of this country. Many of them, like me, take pride in our service and that of others and we strive to preserve the history that is being discarded by families of veterans (and even the veterans themselves). One of my colleagues, a fellow Navy veteran, is pursuing his next book project (his most recent work, Blue Seas, Red Stars: Soviet Military Medals to U.S. Sea Service Recipients in World War II, is a similar, monumental undertaking that recognizes those American servicemen who were decorated by the Soviet Union for heroic acts in convoy and anti-submarine duty in the North Atlantic during WWII) that focuses entirely on the Purple Heart Medals that have been awarded to service men and women who were killed in combat. Many of the hundreds of medals that he has personally photographed for this book are in the hands of collectors who want to see the stories of the awardee preserved and shared in perpetuity.
Bear in mind that I make that statement as both a collector and as someone who is very sensitive about the issue of PHMs being bought and sold (due to the somber nature of why these medals are awarded, owning a medal that is connected to such significant personal loss is too painful for me to see past). Aside from the “For Sale” listings where the current owner painstakingly describes as much detail surrounding the veterans’ service and how they fell in combat, I also have difficulty when I read about an excited collector’s “find.” There is a fair amount of gray area between celebration of landing a medal that helps the collector tell a particular story (in their collection’s area of interest) and one that a collector picked for a very insignificant amount but will garner significant profit when it sells. I know that I am not the only collector who struggles when we see this on display. I also don’t mean to disparage any fellow collector for what brings them excitement and joy with their collection.
One person in particular who is celebrating the introduction of this bill and is hopeful to see it passed is Zachariah Fike (Captain, Vermont National Guard) who is the founder and CEO of Purple Hearts Reunited, a non-profit organization whose mission is to return Purple Heart Medals to the awardees or their families. “We are absolutely humbled to see Private Corrado Piccoli being honored through this bill by Congressman Cook,” reads a Facebook post (dated October 3, 2016) by Fike’s organization. Fike has historically been in opposition of collectors, stated to NBC News in 2012, “’It wouldn’t be fair for me to say they’re all bad. But the ones I have encountered, I would consider myself their No. 1 enemy,” Fike said. “They’re making hundreds or thousands of dollars on (each one) these medals. They think it’s cool. It’s a symbol of death. Because of that, it has a lot of market interest and it has a lot of value.”’ In my near-decade of collecting, I have learned that Fike’s assessment (of medal collectors) is the rare exception rather than the norm.
There is little doubt that Congressman Cook is responding in lockstep with Fikes (who has been vocal in his frustration with collectors’ who did not surrender their medal collection to him) and believe that in banning the sale of these medals will compel collectors to hand them over to organizations and people who are bent on returning them to families. What these well-intentioned people have overlooked is that so many families are the ones who have divested the heirlooms to begin with. For many reasons such as:
- No connection to the distant, deceased relative
- The family suffered a falling out with the veteran (broken marriage, the veteran abandoned his family, etc.) and the medal is a painful reminder
- The survivors are opposed to war, the military and anything that is connected to or associated with it
- Would rather see the medal and history preserved by a collector who has demonstrated this capability
There are many stories of medals being discovered in the most deplorable situations; some of the worst being discovered in dumpsters and curbside garbage cans. As the only one who had an interest in the military history of my family, I was bequeathed militaria from my relatives that included Purple Heart Medals (one of my uncles was wounded in action during both WWI and II). No one else cared. Now I am responsible to ensure that these items are cared for at the end of my life. If this bill passes and no one wants to inherit these items (and with the glut of nearly two million medals being in the same situation as mine), where will they end up?
What happens when Fike comes calling on the family having “recovered” a PHM from a collector only to find that doing so, causes grief with the people who wanted to rid themselves of the item(s) to begin with. What becomes of the medals then? How does this proposed law deal with the collections of PHMs when the collectors pass away and have no future collectors to transfer the medals to? According to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, the current estimation is that there have been more than 1,800,000 Purple Heart Medals awarded since 1932. Of those, how many thousands reside within individual militaria collections and what is to become of them? What percentage of those are unwanted by the families?
One of the unintended consequences of the previously established laws (banning the sale of the Congressional Medal of Honor [CMOH]), countless American artifacts have left our shores and landed in the hands of foreign collectors undoubtedly to ever return to our shores. The law that prevents the sale (similar to the one proposed by Congressman Cook will force collectors (who are seeking to recoup all or part of their investment) to locate buyers outside of the United States. Worse yet, some domestic CMOH collectors who have been in the possession of their medals predating the law (that prohibits the sale) have since been discovered by the federal authorities; their medals confiscated and subsequently destroyed by the FBI.
Banning the sale does very little in reaching the stated goal – to facilitate the return of the Purple Heart Medals to veterans and families. It also creates a problem for law enforcement. With 1.8 million medals in existence, how do they discover transactions, track ownership of medals and what becomes of those recovered who have no surviving family with which to receive said “missing” medal?
Despite what Captain Fike stated about collectors, his actions contradict him in regards to how he truly considers militaria and medal collectors. His push to locate a legislator to take such short-sighted and drastic steps to ban the sale of these artifacts are a direct assault of collectors that will have long-term negative impact on his non-profit organization’s noble efforts. The bill will also include penalties for veterans and families who attempt to sell these medals; there are no exclusionary provisions nor exceptions. Congressman Cook and Captain Fike appear to be targeting (whom they deem to be) the victims in the Purple Heart trade along with the collectors.
My voice hardly matters and no one would bother to take note of what I have to say in regards to this issue. Nevertheless, I believe that this good-intentioned law is ill conceived and will ultimately make it more difficult to restore the medals to the families and veterans who want to see them returned.