Phil Hodges takes a brief look at collecting militaria with the help of advice from experienced dealers Denis Exall and James Aslett.Photographs © Denis Exall

OK. So you’re curious about the other sides of the re-enacting pyramid collecting Militaria on one face and then getting your fingers trapped, burnt and crushed in all things petrol, diesel and horse drawn on the other. You know, military vehicles that are more unreliable than the British Summer…. (Is it clear which is my preferred choice of pastime?).

Lets scale the heady heights of militaria; collecting the uncollectible. Am I going to ramble on about fakes, repros, re-moulds and  ‘fantasy’ pieces? No I’m not as time is short and I’m no expert. So, where to start? Well, let’s keep this simple. If, like me, you don’t have thousands of pounds to spend on German daggers, First World War medal groups, Boer War uniforms or American Civil War relics then where can you start? The good thing about collecting militaria is you can literally spend as little or as much as you like!

Over the years I’ve seen military vehicles sold for tens of thousands of pounds, even more in some cases! I’ve seen them sold for mere hundreds too.I’ve handled and marvelled at pistols once owned by Rommel and Churchill. I’ve drunk from an honour goblet awarded to the Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland. I’ve read from a transcript held in Stalin’s hands and I’ve even peered through a set of binoculars carried by Hitler’s staff so he could observe the coast of Great Britain from the shores of the Pas de Calais. But this was no museum. All these items were being offered for sale by dealers, and was I a prospective buyer seriously considering their purchase? Was I heck, I’ve a mortgage to pay and a wife to hand money to. No, the chance came to handle these historicartifacts because I merely asked to see them. The items were not only had great provenance but they were being sold by reputable dealers who have a passion for what they do and want to share that passion.

This wasn’t in some stuffy London auction house, either, but on a table inside a large tented marquee or on a dealer’s dining room table or on a stall inside a collectors fair. I held priceless history in my hands, but we all have to start somewhere. I started as a lad like most collecting buttons, cap badges and the like. It was a case of pocket money fuelled exuberance.  The days of”I remember Hitler Youth Daggers at £3 each”Or “I used to buy Purple Hearts and Silver stars for $1.50″aren’t just over, they never really existed in the first place! Sure, things have gone up in value , but so has everything else with it.

People who revel in telling you that back in 1971 they only used to pay £10 a time for an SS helmet or an original WW1 uniform fail to tell you that £10 would also have bought you a colour TV or be a down payment for a new Vauxhall Viva.

Admittedly interest in all things military wasn’t what it is today. I remember bagging bargains galore in the heady days of the original boot fair or the now redundant and extinct Church jumble sale. That said, with eBay the internet sensation some prices have crashed to an all time low. Gone are the days of hunting the length of the country for ‘that’ item when you can buy it from halfway round the world from the comfort of your loo seat!

So what does our hard earned money in 2015 buy us? What IS affordable?

What can pocket money buy?Well, depending on your vice most will be pleasantly surprised. From buttons to cap badges for a few pounds to medal groups and silverware worth hundreds or even thousands of pounds there is something for everyone .

I stopped militaria and military bookshop belonging to an old friend of mine to quiz the walking oracle on what was in vogue and more importantly …… How much?Denis Exall has been dealing and collecting militaria for more years than he probably cares to remember. He sits in and old rocking chair on the porch of Cinque Ports Militaria in the leafy town of Tenterden waiting for the rest of the world to bring it’s technology to him and wiles away his hours researching and reading about all things military and historical.

Den, exactly how long have you been collecting now mate?

” All my life. It is in me to find out more about an item and to appreciate it’s uniqueness or rarity. I find collecting (almost anything) a worthwhile hobby to pursue, it can help you get away from a 9 to 5 existence and there is nothing better than turning up a gem every now and again.”

“I have been selling for a few years but only recently taken it up a notch to prepare for early retirement from the printing industry I work in. I have a small property that is being developed into a reasonable specialist military bookshop. I want to go ‘full time’ but will probably stay semi-employed in the family business and employed in my own. I think it could be a good compromise. The Internet is the way forward for established business and I hope to commit more time to the website in the future.”

What’s been the biggest and most noticeable change in the collecting market?

“I’ve just gone with the flow to be honest. I’m not interested in trends as such, I suppose there are some, but I just seem to concentrate on things that interest me, I definitely think knowledge is king!  You just have to look at every stall at a show to gain further experience and better financial awareness, how do you apportion value on anything if you don’t gain an opinion of your own?

I’m curious, are re-enactors good customers or not?

 “Of course e-enactors are good customers haha!  I like re-enactments, the fact that you’re running around in a field will, by sheer common sense, mean that you’re not going to have original gear and awards on your tunics (some nutters do of course!)

[Erm, yeah. Only an idiot would do that. Ahem!] However, for most there are early copies that can look the part, they cost a bit more than the modern reproductions but are better for the overall effect. I like to see authenticity when possible and the likes of the War and Peace and Military Odyssey events do encourage a more realistic look.. I also know a lot of re-enactors, if not all, own reasonable collections of items, and I have been gobsmacked on more than one occasion with what I’ve seen in other people’s homes!

“If I was going to re-enact what would I do? I have made plenty of friends in the collecting world, it would be interesting to hear their thoughts but only if heavily censored.”

What would be good advice for any young or new collectors out there?

“I always say that the most important thing is that you must buy from someone who is prepared to stand behind their items 150%! If you see them every month at a particular fair, they want your business. Talk to them about collecting, ask the questions, for instance, is that Third Reich Iron Cross made before 1945 and will you give me a fullrefund if it’s not? If you pay too much for something, then you haven’t done your homework.I have also found that you need to get the item you want to purchase ‘in your hands’. Internet forums are great for hindsight but you need to learn to make a decision whilst turning the item over and thinking on the spot. I look at something and think is it worth it ? It doesn’t matter what it is, is it what I want and me buying it?”

I’m curious looking at all your stock, there’s some really impressive stuff here. What’s been your ultimate item in collecting or dealing that you’ve bought?

“Sharp intake of breath for that one! I fell head over heals when someone brought a carved marble eagle into theCopdock medal fair in Ipswich. It is a glorious piece of carving, probably done in Italy and ‘liberated’ by a British serviceman. He had it for sixty-five years and hopefully, so will I. Others don’t see it and some say that it leaves them cold and wouldn’t pay £10 for it. This takes me back to mycomment that collectors should buy what they like on impulse and basically, bugger what anyone else says or thinks!”

“Also I have a ‘thing’ for British Airborne and am blessed that wartime berets have been given to me by the original owners for my safe keeping.They will never be sold along with other medals and items that have been given to me.”

I left Cinque Ports Militaria loaded up on free tea and biscuits and a few things for my own collection (all cheap of course in case my wife is reading) and headed back toward warmer climes. Well actually I went to Chatham Historic Dockyard also In ‘birthplace’ of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory and also the very place where the Union Jack was designed.Today wasn’t Navy Day, though, it was the monthly Chatham Militaria Fair held in the huge and impressive covered slip No 5 . A historic venue if ever there was one.

Here I met up with James Aslett who not only runs the fair but is the proprietor of Chelmsford Militaria who are, as he says, fine purveyors of all a re-enactors and collectors needs when it comes to ‘firepower’. That’s guns to you and me. Legally deactivated firearms and accessories from both World Wars and beyond grace his stand at the fair and make for fascinating viewing. What James doesn’t know about this subject isn’t worth knowing and if he doesn’t know, he asks me! Ahem.

He’s been dealing in de-acs and all the goodies that come with them for nearly ten years now. Be they rifles or machine guns, pistols or bayonets he has them all.

Like most of us James started collecting as a young boy. As he got older he could afford bigger and better. It was his passion for collecting militaria that led him to start dealing in deactivated firearms to fund his hobby. By 2008 Chelmsford Militaria was up and running, The rest, they say, is history!

“I’ve normally got somewhere between 400 and 500 deactivated firearms in stock at any one time. Most of my sales are to collectors of historic firearms but I’d say 25-30% are re-enactors and living historians buying period weapons to complete their look”

As is the case with buying anything of value I was interested in any advice that James had about purchasing de-acts or the many accessories that go with them.

“When investing in de-acts my advice is simple -condition , condition , condition. When buying new stock my golden rule is would I have this in my own collection?”

Wise words for all.

Phil Hodges

Phil Hodges is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE