This is a list of do’s and don’ts for militaria collectors in general. I could go into endless detail about US paratrooper items, but the tips below are so much more important, both for starting and seasoned collectors. All these tips are assuming we are 100% rational people, which of course we are not, otherwise we wouldn’t be collectors in the first place. But it’s something to strive for, and ultimately rewarding.
If you have tips of your own, feel free to add them in the comments.
1. Stick to one subject
2. Invest in books
4. Savings: your war chest
5. Bad sellers & counterfeit
6. Post-war items
7. Can I sell it?
8. Go for mint
9. Be patient
10. Keep a list
11. Never enough space
12. How many canteens do you need?
13. Leave something for the others
14. Don’t advertise your collection on fora etc.
15. Don’t buy knives from the US
Even US WW2 in the ETO is too vast, so limit your collection to one subject. As any collector will tell you, this is the most important rule. Most long-time collectors will tell you that they have sold all their German and British stuff, and then they sold all their US Marines and Army Airforce stuff, and so on. The more you get into collecting, the more you realize that your chosen specialty is larger than you imagined and will cost you more money to complete. Even US paratroops in the ETO is too vast a subject for most people’s wallet and patience. Here are some possible specialties: insignia, jump wings, helmets, weapons and related, airborne specialty equipment, dug-up, uniforms, personal items… Alternatively, you choose several or all of these, but you limit yourself to a specific theatre or battle, so the whole ETO, or just Normandy or the Ardennes. In the end, this will result into a more interesting and coherent collection.
You can’t have too many reference books. Good reference books can be expensive, but they are absolutely indispensable. Check my list of recommended books.
Decide where you stand on this, and stick to it. A lot of repro stuff will also end up costing you a lot of money. Afterwards you will think you might have saved the money for some real stuff. But some items are just too expensive and rare. As a paratrooper collector, you need a cricket, but I’m sure you can think of other things to do with a 1000 euros (If you can be sure you get an original for your money, that is). As a rule, I am not against reproductions, but mostly they are intended for re-enactors and will stick out like a sore thumb in a collection of original items. I only buy them if I can’t afford the original and if they are really well done. And still, I have to admit that over the years, I ended up with a lot of reproductions. On this site, you will find quite some reviews of repro items.
Know how much you can spend each month and identify key items you want to save for (that are more expensive than your monthly budget). If you come across something very rare that’s on your list, and you can afford it, buy it. It may screw up your planning, but you may not find the item again for years to come. To do this, you need to have the discipline not to spend all your money and save something for when such an occasion presents itself.
When in doubt, don’t buy/bid, especially when large sums are involved. This takes discipline. You wanted that item so bad, but consider how much you really know about paratrooper helmets, or whatever. The reproductions of the expensive items, especially helmets, are so good that collectors are fooled into paying over 2000 euros for a repro helmet. My rules: The bigger the bullshit story, especially on eBay, the less you should believe any of it. It’s generally a bad sign if the seller is only selling one item, even if he has sold other items before. Generally, auctions with unclear photos and short descriptions are also best avoided. If you choose to collect German stuff, good luck to you.
A lot of items were still (re-)issued and used after WW2. It’s in your interest to be aware of this and to know how to tell the difference, e.g. tax labels on cigarette packs, colors of fabrics, fasteners of insignia, etc. However, some post-war items such as rain coats and overshoes are identical, except for the date on the label or stamping inside. Such items can be nice fillers as long as the label is invisible on display, but they will never become valuable collectibles.
When buying items, it may be wise to consider whether or not you think it can be sold for at least the same price. This is particularly true for repro items and things that are not in very good condition. With such items you are likely to loose money when you want to get rid of them. While keeping track of prices of things you want, remember to also take note of the going prices of things you already have. Over the years you will see prices of some items go up whereas others remain steady for years. The good news is that original items in good condition keep their value. But selling items takes time and effort. If you take that into account, selling is often a losing game.
Aged and lived-in used items are nice, but NOS (New old stock) is better. If you ever decide to sell something, NOS sells better, even if more expensive. As a rule, buy the best condition you can afford. For very rare items, used condition may be acceptable, but otherwise, hold on to your money until you find better quality.
Accept the fact that it will take years to grow your collection. If you submit to the temptation of buying what you can instead of buying what you want, you will become an accumulator rather than a collector.
In fact, keep several lists: Keep a list of what you want, and in what order (in a balanced and focused collection, some items are more essential than others, especially when you are just starting out). Keep a list to keep track of prices of items you couldn’t buy or were outbid on for future reference. After a few years of following auctions and visiting shows, you will be able to estimate the values of items quite accurately.
Many of us have sweethearts who don’t want to see our collections expand into the whole house. Assuming you want to hold on to both your collection and your lady, you need to consider what you can do with the space available over the years to come, so you don’t need to sell stuff to make room for other stuff or move to bigger house. How many showcases, how many mannequins, frames on the walls… will it fit and look good?
Collecting varieties of one item can be fun in it’s own right: US made canteens vs. British made, early war vs. late war, aluminum vs. steel vs. plastic, different manufacturers etc…, but in the end they are all pretty similar and not very interesting conversation when showing visitors around your collection. Just buy different versions of canteen covers, musette bags etc. for each bust or mannequin you have, but no more than that.
When you find a nice item you already have and you really don’t need it double, leave it for the next guy and think of rules 4, 5 and 8.
Some people can’t resist showing off their rare items on public internet fora, usually in an effort to establish their bona fides as a serious collector. Not wise if you want to enjoy your collection much longer.
Yes, rare knives can still be found quite easily on US militaria and auction sites, and usually far cheaper than in Europe. If you can get them over here, that is. For some years now, European customs have become reliably adept at intercepting them and fining you for importing them.