Thriving Market Emerges for World War II Collectibles

By Swaney, Chriss | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

Thriving Market Emerges for World War II Collectibles


Swaney, Chriss, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


A hoot of laughter erupts. Images -- immediate and intangible and visceral -- slowly materialize. For a moment, it is 1944, and an 18- year-old sailor gazes across a fateful beach called Normandy, where the world clashed on what would be dubbed D-Day.

More than 60 years later, H.W. "Huck'' Huckestein, of Franklin Park, can still recall that fateful day, when his LST Naval craft helped transport some of America's "Greatest Generation" to that Normandy beachhead.

Together, the veterans and those historic battlefields form a precious national treasure, a collective conscience, of sorts, that has ignited a boom in World War II collectibles.

"Renewed interest for World War II memorabilia stems from the fact that 14-year-olds today see World War II the way my generation viewed the Civil War when we were kids. We used to collect everything from the Civil War, and now this new generation is determined to own as much World War II stuff as they can find,'' says Huckestein, whose collection includes several German bayonets and a letter Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower penned to the D-Day forces.

Still, other collectors and veterans credit the movie industry for creating the demand for vintage World War II memorabilia.

Two new World War II films and an upcoming documentary are firing up the market for memorabilia, from Grandpa's dusty old medals, helmets and bomber jackets, to vintage aircraft.

"Flags of Our Fathers," Clint Eastwood's epic on the bloody battle of Iwo Jima, hit markets late last year, and Eastwood's companion film, "Letters From Iwo Jima," told from the Japanese perspective, opened earlier in the month. A seven-part Ken Burns documentary, "The War," is scheduled to air on public television in September

Add to that the fact that many of the World War II vets are in their 80s and are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day, and their legacy and the military artifacts they used are even more valuable, says Francis R. Krhovsky of Kirk's Antiques in Blawnox.

"So this is an excellent time to bone up on the World War II collectibles market,'' Krhovsky says. "I always tell folks to start with family, because you may have a grandfather or uncle who has something he'll give you if you ask.'"

Treasures will continue to surface as veterans and their heirs clear out attics.

"There's something extremely powerful about holding the things these men and women held,'' says Dan Hamilton, who has a World War II museum in the basement of his Oakmont home.

But collectors say it isn't like the period about 40 years ago, when World War II items were much less expensive. At that time, Ken Rendell, who operates a by-appointment-only museum of World War II artifacts near Boston, was able to find rare D-Day mementos, such as grappling hooks used to scale the cliffs during the invasion, by trolling French flea markets.

Hamilton, a member of the World War II Airmen's Preservation Society, a nationwide nonprofit that promotes and preserves World War II history, says hand-painted leather jackets worn by American aviators that sold for $75 two decades ago now start at $1,000 -- and go for even more if the collector can document the owner's story.

American GI helmets in good condition sell for about $250. Rarer German paratrooper helmets can sell for as much as $10,000.

Military dealer Brent Snodgrass, of Knoxville, Tenn., says he can't find enough German World War II memorabilia to satisfy demand. "I also deal with collectors from Finland, where the loss and suffering in that Nordic country is rarely discussed in most history books,'' says Snodgrass, author of a book about the effect of World War II in Finland and Estonia.

Kevin Carney, owner of West Virginia-based North China Arms and Antiques, says World War II sniper rifles and uniforms continue to be in demand.

"In addition to the craze created when these war movies hit the big screens, we have a new wave of baby boomers getting involved in World War II re-enactments,'' Carney says. …

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