Most would agree that World War II militaria is the most popular military era to collect, and fortunately, “out of the woodwork” WWII items continue to surface from estates. WWII militaria initially emerged as a collecting hobby shortly after soldiers returned from Europe with Third Reich souvenirs, particularly medals, guns, and headgear. As demand for German WWII collectibles increased, the hobby evolved from blue-collar to white-collar. As with any collecting circle, when items start selling for serious money opportunists enter the scene with fakes and begin to infect the hobby. The surge in German fakes, coupled with skyrocketing prices, resulted in many collectors turning to U.S. militaria as a safer, more affordable option, and U.S. items once considered “surplus” have become legitimate collectibles. Popular areas include:
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1. Firearms: Military firearms have always been in high demand with crossover appeal to both militaria and gun collectors. Many collectors not only focus on particular models—like the M1 Garand, M1 Carbine, 1911A1 pistol and Springfield 1903—but also the various contractors for each weapon. The Holy Grail is to find a weapon that has all original finish and all original parts from the factory. Most WWII era weapons today have replaced parts, so original examples command a premium. A WWII-dated M1 Garand refurbished with postwar parts brings around $650, whereas an original WWII M1 Garand sells for more than $2000 if you can find one!
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2. Groups: A group (or grouping) is a collection of items attributed to one veteran. Groups may contain uniform items, medals, helmet, dog tags, photos, and paperwork—including discharge, general orders and other ephemera. These items establish provenance, which greatly increases historical and collecting value. Items without provenance are worth no more than the sum of the parts.
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3. Headgear: Military headgear is very popular because it displays well, with many types and variations to acquire. The price range accommodates anyone’s budget, with an infantry piped overseas cap selling for $5 to a named M2 “D-bale” airborne helmet selling for more than $12,000. Most militaria collectors have a soft spot for headgear, which is why it sells well.
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4. Insignia & Medals: WWII patch collecting actually started during WWII. As soldiers returned home, many donated their insignia to be sewn on wonderful handmade patch blankets, or given to children to trade like baseball cards. Collectors focus on insignia variations and without knowing the difference between a “green back” vs. a “white back,” or a “green border,” it’s easy to assume they’re of equal value, but they’re not! Greenbacks are sewn with green bobbin thread, resulting in the reverse side being prominently green. These scarce variants sell for many times more than white back examples of the same patch. Medals are a privilege to collect and own because they are personal and earned by the veteran. Posthumous medals typically have name of the veteran inscribed on the back and are very desirable to collectors, particularly when they are accompanied with an original presentation case and government correspondence to the deceased solder’s family. A cased WWII Good Conduct Medal sells for $10, whereas an inscribed KIA Purple Heart sells in the hundreds or more, depending on the unit served in and the circumstances of death.
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5. Knives: WWII knives were either issued or privately acquired. Notable makers of handmade fighting knives include Gary Randall and Frank J Richtig. To find clean WWII examples from either maker will cost well over $1,500. Most of the knives taken into battle were mass-produced through government contracts, like the wonderfully utilitarian model M3; a popular knife to collect because of the different contractors for both the knife and scabbard. M3’s start at $150 for just the knife and can sell in the hundreds for a clean, early example with the maker and date marked on the blade and a nice leather M6 scabbard. There are also theater-made knives constructed from scrap aluminum, Lucite, steel, brass and other materials. Theater-made knives vary in form, quality and value, and are sought after collectibles.