As a navy veteran and a part of a ship’s commissioning crew (termed “plankowner”), by tradition, I am entitled to receive a piece of the deck planking when “my” ship is put out of service and dismantled or broken up. In the days when wood-planking was installed on the external (top-side) decks, sailors were actually eligible to receive a section of the teak wood decking material from the Navy Department when the ship was scrapped. Modern warships however, are devoid of wooden deck coverings having steel or aluminum surfaces covered with non-skid material and paint. In light of this, the Navy no longer provides plankowners with the mementos from their ships.
Since the Navy no longer provides sailors with planks, they are left to settle for the symbolic certificate and various paraphernalia (ship ballcaps, Zippo lighters, shirts, coffee mugs, etc.) that is emblazoned with “Plankowner.” Most sailors are satisfied with these representative pieces as reminders of their service aboard their ships, regardless of their synthetic importance. Some sailors still seek pieces of their ship as actual, tangible reminders of the vessels they spent years of their lives serving aboard. But there are challenges to acquiring actual pieces.
Ideally, when ships are stricken from the the Naval Vessel Register, they would be transferred from inactive maintenance storage locations to a ship recycling facility (a private company that is awarded a contract) for dismantling. The persistent plankowner (or collector) would then be able to work with the management at the scrapping facility to acquire a piece. In a perfect world, this scenario works nicely. However, nothing really works perfectly.
Not all decommissioned ships head for the scrapper’s cutting torch. Some ships are leased or sold to friendly nations. Some are used as sacrificial training targets, struck by an array of missiles and naval gunfire before finding their way to the ocean floor. Others were set in place (by way of explosive charges) as artificial reefs (a practice that was terminated in 2012 due to environmental concerns) providing habitat for marine life and attractive destinations for SCUBA divers. Obtaining a piece of the ship in any of these instances is next to impossible. Collectors seeking to remove a piece of a reef ship might want to check the local laws to ensure that they won’t be facing legal issues for such an activity.
The navy ship on which I served (for the first sea tour of my career) was decommissioned in 2005 after slightly less than 20 years of service. Being present that day to see her crew physically disembark the vessel thereby effectively shutting her down, was a surreal experience for me. In those moments, I recalled two decades earlier when my shipmates and I walked from the pier, up the brow and to our stations and placing her into active service. The ship and I had come full circle. Walking her quiet and empty decks after the ceremony, I began searching for a piece that I could take with me – something significant yet small enough to conceal (sailors have a knack for the art of procurement), but there was virtually nothing to be had, save for a t-wrench for a sealed deck-drain and an monkey-fist from the flag bag in the signal bridge (both pieces found their way into my camera bag).
In the seven years since her decommissioning, I was finally able to connect with a person with ties to the ship breaker contracted by the Navy to dispose of the ship (the ship was dismantled from 2010-2011). The person I contacted afforded me the opportunity to acquire a piece with significance – one of the ship’s mast lights. This particular light had been mounted on the ship’s foremast providing a nighttime visual navigation element for other ships’ crews to observe. Having been a lookout watch-stander early in my career, I recall looking up to see the forward light glowing overhead as we steamed through the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Though my light has no physical markings indicating that it was actually taken from my ship, I do have provenance (from the person who provided me the with the light) to connect the light to the Vincennes. Cast entirely from bronze, the piece is considerably stout, weighing north of 25 pounds. I re-wired the fixture to accommodate a residential 110-volt current (including a dimmer) and hope to have it mounted to a wooden base. The finishing touch will be to affix the light base with a brass plate complete with engraved with details of the ship. In its new life, the mast light will continue to provide light and serve as a reminder of the once proud ship on which it served.
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.
I know that I can be retrospective in viewing where I have been throughout my life. I tend to keep my thoughts between my wife and me as they mostly pertain to us and the blessings and challenges that we have experienced. This year has only hours remaining and I have found myself looking back through the twelve months that have transpired to see what we have faced. However, I am reminded that those of us who enjoy history can also get too focused on what has already happened and overlook today and be complacent about planning and setting goals for the future. In looking back through the past year, I have made some interesting discoveries for my collection and historical research (as can be seen in the 49 articles that I have published on 2016, including the one you are reading) while adding some significant pieces.
In reviewing what I have enjoyed as military history collector, researcher and amateur writer, I am astounded that I was able to publish nearly 50 articles while being a husband, father and working full-time and logging thousands of miles on my bicycle. As a family, we traveled a bit this year – three family trips to other parts of this country – tying in visits to significant historic locations and sites (which tend to be associated with important military events) to educate ourselves and our children. One of my children graduated high school and flew the nest as he embarked upon his career in the U.S. Air Force. We also suffered through an extended period of joblessness. Because of the loss of my job and other factors, my acquisitions slowed to a standstill, however leading up to that point, I landed some pieces that were, for me, nothing short of incredible.
In terms of my writing and my largest output of published articles since I started this project in 2013 (17 article published in that first year), this site has truly begun to grow in terms of readership doubling but viewers and pages viewed from 2015 to 2016 and doubling again this year (reaching 20,000 views and 10,000 visitors). I do so little to publicize this site choosing instead to allow the articles to surface in searches that the growth is even more impressive, at least by my own low standards. Despite the growth in readership, I am still amazed that anyone finds my subject matter interesting. I am the first to admit that my prose is rather bland (at best) if not dull and yawn-inspiring so the exponential increase in readers is difficult to fathom.
My other military history site (Chevrons and Diamonds) is also beginning to gain viewers and readership though the subject matter there (military baseball history) has an even smaller audience. In slightly more than 25 months, I have published 37 articles (22 this year) that focus entirely upon artifacts, players, teams and other aspects of the game of baseball within the ranks of the United States armed forces. Since I acquired my first WWII Marine Corps uniform nearly a decade ago, delving into this area of collecting has truly been a mission of discovery and enjoyment. People are just beginning to discover this site as the traffic is steadily increasing (tripling last year’s growth) though it pales in comparison to what this site is experiencing.
I don’t know what 2018 will bring for me in terms of collecting, researching, writing and publishing. I am planning on having another public display (my two previous showings: Enlisted Ratings and Uniforms in 2017 and Military Baseball in 2015). The theme for this coming year will be centered upon the centennial of World War I and will force me to take inventory of my collection in order to assemble a compelling display of artifacts to share with the public. My two previous experiences with sharing my collection have been rewarding. I suppose that aside from my own personal enjoyment of the artifacts and their history, sharing what I have collected in order to provide a measure of education for others is one of my objectives with this passion. What is the purpose of collecting and researching these artifacts if it is kept entirely to myself? As long as I am capable of balancing my marriage, children, health and career with this passion, I will continue to write and share my collecting interests within the realm of these two blogs. As to looking back at what I have been through this year, I am happy to take a few rear-facing glances as I move ahead in gratitude for everything.
To everyone who reads these pages my hope is for a happy 2018 to you all.
Happy New Year!
After publishing more than 100 articles (this is my 106th, to be precise), it is odd that I would make a U-turn and head back to a topic that I should have posted when I commenced this militaria-writing venture. There are many times when I find myself in conversations with people when I am explaining my unusual interest of gathering artifacts that were used in the armed forces in some capacity. I have touched on various aspects of my own rationale behind my interests in several posts, however nothing as fundamental or foundational to what lies at the root of my interest. Though I have been actively collecting artifacts since 2008-9, my interest in militaria began many years earlier.
What is Militaria? Merriam-Webster defines it as “military objects (as firearms and uniforms) of historical value or interest.” The definition of the word is fairly ambiguous and vague when one considers what could fall into the category of military objects.
The categories of military objects can be quite expansive ranging from matchbook covers and photographs to uniforms and weapons. There is something for anyone interested in almost any aspect of military history. As with most collectibles, militaria objects can cross over into multiple categories which can bring larger audiences and have significant influence on pricing. For example, in the area of military patches, militaria collectors can find themselves competing with Disney collectors for Walt Disney-designed aviation squadron patches from World War II. Vintage photograph collectors may be competing with the militaria collector for the same WWI yard long images.
Crossover collectability is good for the hobby as it provides opportunity to focus on specific interests that may be out of the mainstream for either facet. While many militaria hobbyists gather M-1 helmets, insignia, or edged weapons, very few seek out matchbooks.
My own interest in militaria was fostered during my quest to uncover the details surrounding the military service of my ancestors and family members. I also inherited a number of personal effects (militaria) from a few of those veterans which drove me to document their service. As with collecting, one item led to another and soon I found myself piecing together shadow boxes honoring their service and assembling their uniforms for display purposes.
Where do your interests lie? Nineteenth century, Napoleonic wars? Eighteenth century British naval officer uniforms? Medals and decorations of the former Soviet Union? Or perhaps your interests lie in the current conflicts of the United States (Iraq and Afghanistan). One can specialize in assembling the various uniforms for WWII women’s services such as W.A.C., W.A.V.E.S. or W.A.S.P.– but be prepared to pay premiums for these hard-to-find items. Whatever your interest, you should find a collecting niche that aligns with your interest.
Unless you inherited a museum full of artifacts, narrowing your collecting is advisable with the considerable financial outlay you will be facing as you expand or fill in the gaps in your collection. Instead of broad categories such as anything World War II-related, one can be very specific and pursue items from the U.S. Army 4th infantry division. Uniforms, insignia, notable personalities, valor medal recipients or any number of special interests would make the hunt exciting and possibly keep costs manageable.
My collection consists of uniform items, medals, ribbons, documents and photos. All of which has context or tie-in to my family history. In addition to the displays and groups I have assembled, I also have acquired some items that have piqued my interests (or distracted me). While I haven’t purchased any of them, I did manage to obtain a nice group of Third Reich militaria that was “liberated” by one of my relatives, a U.S. Army officer. But in keeping with my focus, I haven’t pursued any additional items to add to that theme.
Follow your heart and your interest!
One of my hobbies – truth be told, it is more than just a hobby for me – is genealogy research. Specifically, I am interested in uncovering facts and details pertaining to those of my ancestors who served in combat or just in uniform for this country. As with any research project, each piece of verifiable data opens the door for new, deeper research. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a stopping point once that occurs.
Due to the recency of that time period, researching veterans who served in the twentieth century may seem to be an easy task when one considers the sheer volume of paperwork that can be created for or associated with an individual service member. If one has the time and resources available, it can be relatively easy to obtain all the records connecting a soldier, sailor, airman or marine to every aspect of their service during World War II or Korea. However, this becomes increasingly difficult as you seek details for those who served in earlier times.
Booms in militaria markets occur around significant anniversaries which propel history enthusiasts into seeking artifacts and objects from these events. On April 2, 2017, the United States began to mark the centennial of her entry into WW1 (the date is the anniversary of President Wilson’s request to Congress for a formal declaration of war against Germany) which has ignited an interest in WWI militaria by existing and new militaria seekers, alike resulting in a significant spike in prices. The renewed interest is a repeat of another of the United States’ conflicts that occurred just a few years ago.
During 2012, several states and the U.S. Navy initiated commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (formally declared by Congress on June 18, 1812) and the year-long recognition of this monumental conflict between the United States and Great Britain. This war has seemingly been a mere footnote when taught in American schools, exceedingly overshadowed by the War for Independence or the War between the States, and very little documentation is available for research when compared to other more popular conflicts.
My ancestral history has confirmed that several lines in my family are early settlers of what became the United States. So far, I have been able to locate documentation verifying that three of my ancestors fought in support of the struggle for Independence. Several generations downstream from them shows an even more significant amount of family taking up arms during the Civil War. The documentation that is available in print and online is incredible when it comes to researching either of these two wars. But what about the conflicts in between – the War of 1812 in particular?
By chance, I was able to locate two veterans (family members) who fought in this 32-month long war with England. The strange thing about it is that one fought for the “enemy” and the other for the United States. Even more strange was that they met on the field of battle with the American being taken captive and subsequently guarded by the British soldier. At some point, the two became more than cordial enemies and the American POW’s escape was benefited by that friendship. Years later, the two veterans would meet (after the British veteran immigrated to North America) and the one-time adversaries would become neighbors. The American veteran would ultimately marry the former Brit’s daughter, forever linking the two families.
While researching the War of 1812 can be difficult for genealogists, collecting authentic militaria of the conflict poses an even greater challenge. Very little remains in existence and, of that, even less is in private hands making it next to impossible for individual collectors to obtain without paying exorbitant prices or being taken by unscrupulous sellers (or both).
To say that uniforms from the period are scarce is putting it very mildly. The ravages of time exact their toll on the natural fibers of the cloth (wool, cotton) and the suppleness of leather, making anything that survived to present day an extremely delicate item. Hardware such as buttons and buckles are more likely to be available and while less expensive than a tunic or uniform, they will still be somewhat pricey.
I have resigned myself to the idea that owning any militaria item from the first 100 years of our nation’s existence is out of the question choosing instead to marvel at the collections that are available within the confines of museums.