Military memorabilia, or militaria, may have great sentimental value to its owner, but can be fairly worthless otherwise.
Nearly 42 million men and women took part in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Indian Wars, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. That's a lot of war memorabilia generated even before we get into the ongoing Global War on Terror, which adds an estimated 2 million more veterans to the mix.
But military memorabilia isn't just restricted to items used in wars. The military memorabilia market is replete with items used or made by military personnel during peacetime. It's also filled with a whole lot of replicas and knockoffs of items used during both war and peace, which can make it difficult to determine the items' value without documenting at least some of its background.
And eBay warns, in a post entitled "Fakes, Fakers and Fakery," that a surge in military reproductions coupled with a sudden glut of military items from the estates of World War II and Korean War has presented a unique opportunity for counterfeiters to earn a quick buck. We hope they're dealing in volume, as all but the most rare military antiques offer little return on their initial value.
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If you're going through your dad's crates from Vietnam or your grandfather's treasures from World War II, there is a strong chance that folks around the country are doing the same. Unless your particular veteran managed to, say, swipe a pair of Hitler's gloves from the Eagle's Nest or managed to get an autograph from General Douglas MacArthur on the way back from the 38th Parallel -- or even tuck away a few pieces of some very large pieces of hardware -- you'll be heading to the antique shops with much of the same memorabilia as everyone else.
When millions of people tell their heirs to hold onto mass-produced items because they'll be "worth something someday," you end up with millions of items that, after inflation, aren't worth all that much more than their initial cost. You also have to hope that generations of family members kept items in pristine condition throughout their lifetimes and didn't allow children to use them as costumes or grandkids to play with them as props.
Without knowing how many of each particular item was made and how many are still in existence, it's difficult for a seller to know just how much at item is worth. That makes military memorabilia buyers guides among some of the most valuable items a person digging through closets and attics can get their hands on. However, military and war memorabilia collection tends to involve sifting the exceptions out of the rule.
We took a look through eBay and through some experts' assessments and came up with ten examples of military memorabilia that is in high supply, but fairly low demand.
Worthless military memorabilia is far from the weirdest thing you can buy on eBay:
10. World War II ration-related items
Lowest price on eBay: 1 cent
There were 132 million people in the U.S. in 1940 and even more by the time sugar was rationed for the war effort in 1942. By 1943, typewriters, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, silk, nylon, fuel oil, stoves, meat, lard, shortening and food oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods, dried fruits, canned milk, firewood, coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter were all being rationed. That meant a whole lot of stamps and tokens that folks exchanged for their ration of each item. That also meant that a lot of stamp books and tokens were still floating around by the time the war ended. These are great artifacts and great teaching tools when reminding students how civilians used to sacrifice during wartime (a concept that seems novel to unthinkable now), but they aren't exactly rare or valuable. The items they were traded in for were far more precious at the time.
9. World War II German coins and stamps
Lowest price on eBay: 26 cents for a set
The postage will cost more than the value of most coins and stamps laden with Nazi imagery. It wasn't exactly rare when Allied troops went into Germany and there's now a ton of all of it floating around. Granted, you could take your grandparent's pile of all of this to a numismatist or philatelist and see if they're from a particularly rare run, but there's no inherent value in it originating from the Third Reich. At best, it's a reminder of the good your relatives did in ending that regime. At worst, it's a creepy relic of pure evil that occupies space in your home.
8. World War II patches
Lowest price on eBay: 99 cents for a set
Of the 42 million veterans that served in all U.S. wars from 1775 to 1991, 16 million served during World War II alone. That makes it incredibly difficult to come across a standard-issue uniform item that's going to be worth a whole lot of money. That value expands a bit if a veteran rose through the ranks, but those shoulder patches typically aren't going to be worth all that much if you're culling from the greatest U.S. military commitment in history. In fact, there's a strong chance that patches from the various campaigns of the global war on terror will end up being less numerous than those that came out of World War II. If you're looking for a uniform item of value from World War II, you have to think elite.
"Anything connected to the Rangers, the Airborne or the Marines," says Kenneth W. Rendell, founder and director of the Museum of World War II in Natick, Mass. "There's a romance associated with these elite forces that makes their uniforms and equipment particularly desirable to collectors."
7. Civil War bullets
Lowest price on eBay: 99 cents for a set of 17
An estimated 7 million bullets were fired during the Battle of Gettysburg alone. That battle lasted just three days, which explains why a beginner's guide to civil war bullets ($2) costs more than handfuls of the bullets themselves. If you're fortunate enough to live near Civil War battlefields there's a solid chance that the surrounding land is still teeming with them. However, much like the farmers of Flanders who keep unearthing World War I artillery with each year's "Iron Harvest," they're more of a curiosity or outright nuisance than a collectible.
6. World War I and World War II photos
Lowest price on eBay: 99 cents for a set of 17
During the Civil War, when photography required heavy equipment and glass plates, photos were a bit more precious of a commodity. During World War I, when photos from home were a bit more standard, and World War II, when GIs could tote pocket-sized cameras, photos became far more prevalent. Now, we aren't saying that actual battle photos or photos of famous figures from each conflict are worthless. But even if a veteran came home with photos of German troops sitting for dinner, it isn't going to be anything but a version of scenes that thousands to millions of other veterans documented.
5. Uniform brass buttons
Lowest price on eBay: 99 cents
Remember what we said earlier about patches? Well, basically any heavily replicated portion of a uniform can fit into this category. The example we have here is from the Indian Wars in the 1800s, but eBay is just teeming with entire lots of buttons from the Grand Army of the Republic, World War I, World War II and onward. A set of four World War II officer's buttons can be had for $4.50, but if you're looking for buttons worth your while, Confederate brass from the Civil War tends to fetch a much higher price. Beyond that, you'll either need full sets of dozens of Civil War-era buttons or buttons attached to the uniforms themselves to get anything above nominal value.
4. Vietnam War slides
Lowest price on eBay: 99 cents
This is a shame, as many of these slides contain incredible images. There are battle scenes, Hueys in flight, vignettes from villages, views from behind the lines. However, even though they're in a format that's been deemed largely obsolete, nearly 2 million troops deployed in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and 5.7 million U.S. troops in total worldwide during the Vietnam era brought home millions of slides. A whole stack of them will set you back a few hundred dollars but, as war memorabilia goes, these slides remain some of the most affordable and striking examples.
3. World War II victory medal
Lowest price on eBay: $3.99
This medal was given to everyone who served the U.S. during World War II. Again, this narrows the field to 16 million if you don't count replacement medals that were handed out throughout the years. Even when it comes in its original box, it only fetches about $70. This serves as a warning for just about all medals: it pays to figure out which were widely distributed and which made it into the hands of a chosen few. While receiving this medal was no small deal, it holds far more sentimental value for those who made it back than monetary value for those tending to their effects.
2. Challenge coins
Lowest price on eBay: $9
Challenge coins themselves are far from worthless. They signify membership and achievement in some of the most elite groups that the U.S. military and intelligence communities have to offer. If you were part of a police detail at Checkpoint Charlie along the Berlin Wall in Cold War-era Germany, a CIA sniper, a member of Delta Force, a SEAL team member or were head of SOCOM, your challenge coin is worth three to four figures. However, the market is so flooded with commemorative coins and higher-volume coins handed out on base or for large-scale operations that this is a tough one to gauge. There's also the small fact that military members who receive challenge coins often take them as a token of an experience they've survived. They don't part with them easily, which means they often change hands a generation at a time.
1. U.S. World War II helmets
Lowest price on eBay: $19.99
Was your grandparent a paratrooper, medic or tanker who was able to keep a helmet in pristine condition for more than 75 years? Great, there's an off chance that you make make $1,000 or more off of it. However, if their standard-issue M1 helmet faced the ravages of time and is missing a liner and straps, then it isn't going to be worth as much as you'd hope. A German helmet, however, is a different story.
"American soldiers saved so much of their gear that most U.S. uniform items, helmets and the like are not especially rare and sell for $125 or less," says Kenneth W. Rendell of the Museum of World War II in Natick, Mass. "A standard German army helmet could bring $500 to $1,000. A German SS helmet might sell for $4,000 to $7,000."
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Editors' pick: Originally published Sept. 11.