Military memorabilia and militaria hides its most valuable treasures amid a sea of sentimental value.
The odds against any one piece of militaria holding significant value are high. The most valuable military memorabilia has to be extremely rare or noteworthy to fetch even four figures on the open market. The Department of Veterans Affairs notes that 42 million men and women served the U.S. during 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. Even when their war memorabilia is in flawless condition, its price is hampered by the sheer volume of items still in circulation.
There isn’t even consensus on which items you can and can’t sell. In 2005, President George W. Bush signed the Stolen Valor Act prohibiting the shipment or sale of medals of valor such as the Purple Heart or Bronze Star. The idea was to prevent people from posing as decorated veterans, but the Supreme Court found the Stolen Valor Act unconstitutional in 2012. A 2013 update under President Barack Obama’s administration tweaked the law to decriminalize the sale of medals, but to criminalize fraudulently claiming to be a decorated veteran for financial benefit.
eBay, meanwhile, has maintained a stringent policy on items originating in Nazi Germany. Stamps, postmarked envelopes and currency bearing Nazi symbols are O.K. However, a litany of ghastly artifacts are banned from the site, including items from concentration camps, Nazi uniforms, 1936 Olympic medals, autographs and photos of Nazi leaders and any item manufactured after 1933 that bears the Nazi swastika.
“American soldiers often brought German and Japanese military souvenirs home from the war as symbols of victory,” says Kenneth W. Rendell, founder and director of the Museum of World War II in Natick, Mass. “German items can be quite valuable, particularly those associated with the SS or German paratroopers.”
Meanwhile, there is a whole lot of war memorabilia and militaria that holds inherent value just based on how history unfolded. Eastern Europe was awash in statues of Josef Stalin and Vladamir Lenin after the Soviet Union occupied the region following World War II. Many of those statues fell beneath hammers or into blast furnaces after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but a few remain on the market today.
Artifacts belonging to Benito Mussolini, George Custer, Kaiser Wilhelm, Soviet diplomat Andrey Vyshinsky and Napoleon all remain on the open market. Relics of various wars that have somehow eluded museums or remained in private collections have found their way to eBay in droves.
We went shopping for militaria and war memorabilia and found ten of the priciest items eBay has to offer. Whether you’re just into military memorabilia or have an innate desire to preserve history, there are items of great value out there if you’re willing to invest the time to research them and money to procure them.
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10. Napoleon Bonaparte and Duke of Wellington signed letters from the Battle of Waterloo
Price on eBay:$30,000
Forever enshrined in the pantheon of great defeats and ABBA songs, the Battle of Waterloo spelled the end of Napoleon’s string of battlefield victories and his grip on France. Napoleon abdicated his position as Emperor of France days later as the coalition forces that defeated him marched into Paris. Today, a large mound topped with a Lion stands at the site of the battle just south of Brussels and children scamper through the underground, bunker-like museum reading about the more than 30,000 men and slew of horses killed during this particular campaign. Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and Prussian prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher don’t get enough credit for their victory — especially considering Napoleon gets tasty pastry named after him, while Wellington makes do with a slightly edible beef dish. To have his letter showcased alongside Napoleon’s here affords him some far overdue accolades.
9. World War I Major General Harry Gilchrist’s medical chemical warfare collection
Price on eBay:$40,000
Harry L. Gilchrist died in 1943, but his work in the Gas Service of the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I saved countless lives. Visit the fields of the Ypres Salient, the Somme or Verdun in Belgium and Northern France and you’ll see firsthand the horror that the use of mustard gas, sarin and other chemical weapons during the Great War wrought upon not only the soldiers who fought it, but on the landscape and the people who happen upon unexploded gas shells to this day. Gilchrist helped the allied forces improve care for chemical-weapons casualties and established protocol that was later taught to medical corps officers in the U.S. Among his effects in this lot are patent and blueprint items, a signed two page letter from General Douglas MacArthur and an autograph from World War I fighter pilot and Medal of Honor recipient Eddie Rickenbacker.
8. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s sea shako and parade feathers
Price on eBay:$42,500
If you want a glaring example of the grudges among the European aristocracy that led to World War II, look no further than Wilhelm II. The son of former Prussian prince and German Emperor Frederick III and British Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Royal, Wilhelm’s family tree is basically a World War waiting to happen. His cousin jilted him for a Russian, he acted in a disorderly fashion at a Russian princess’s coming-out party and, after his father died fewer than 100 days into his reign as Emperor, assumed the throne and kicked out chancellor Otto von Bismarck for, among other things, being soft on Russia. He egged on fights around the globe, built up Germany’s military presence and, after his buddy Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, took Austria-Hungary’s side and touched off the war with Russia that he wanted. That turned into World War I, which turned the trenches into a meat grinder for German troops while starving the folks back home. By 1918, he’d lost the support of his party, people and military and was exiled to the Netherlands, which had remained neutral during the war. Though his nationalism and anti-Semitism led him to support the Nazis from afar, he died in 1941 with nothing by Hitler’s scorn for losing World War I and a pink mausoleum for his remains. Anyway, this is his See-Bataillon General Feldmarschall’s shako — fancy navy hat — with feathers for parade dress and monogrammed cases and liners. It’s in mint-minus condition, which is incredibly rare for items more than a century old.
7. World War II P-47 Thunderbolt propeller blades
Price on eBay:$45,000
There were 15,636 P-47 fighter-bombers built, and they became the U.S. Air Force’s most dependable small aircraft. Carrying 500-pound bombs and high velocity aircraft rockets, Thunderbolts destroyed 86,000 railroad cars, 9,000 locomotives, 6,000 armored fighting vehicles and 68,000 trucks during their stint in Europe. However, there are fewer than 50 remaining today, with about 14 in flying shape. That makes parts like these invaluable to those restoring the remaining versions or tending to the five that are in storage in the U.S. either awaiting restoration or being rebuilt after recent crashes (two since 2002). The seller has refurbished these and refuses to break up the set, knowing that they’re the only way to restore one of the original planes. Even pieces of history still play a vital role in maintaining it.
6. 81 Civil War letters from Gettysburg
Price on eBay:$50,000
It takes something special to give letters home from battle any kind of value. Nearly every veteran sent one during their service, nearly every family received them. Rarity and circumstances can alter that value significantly. World War II letters, for example, carry little value and even letters from German prisoner-of-war camps are fairly plentiful. However, letters from Japanese-held POWs can fetch upwards of $500 thanks largely to the fact that they were incredibly rare. In the case of these letters, Francis John King of the 42nd, later 190th Pennsylvania Infantries, goes into tremendous detail about his nearly four years of service during letters home to his fiancee Martha, during his near four years of service.He was twice taken prisoner in Virginia and gave explicit accounts of the conditions of Salisbury Prison, but it’s his account of the Battle of Gettysburg that is particularly engaging.
July 9, 1863 “…we have been on the march every single day (except when fighting) for the last fifteen days…My feet have been blistered up, my neck chafed as sore as a bite, and my whole body one big ache all through…on the morning of the fourth I was with the regt in the extreme front. A battery played on us with shell but was soon silenced by our sharpshooters. We had seven killed among which was our Colonel, forty one wounded. Frank Bell was wounded in the foot making amputation necessary…We were up by daylight again and marched to Gettysburg & fought the same day. I helped to carry off a couple of wounded men going right in the rear of our regiment whilst it was fighting. I tell you the bullets whistled some so did the shot and shell…”
5. Iron sculpture of Vladamir Lenin
Price on eBay:$59,000
Architect of the Bolshevik Revolution, father of the Soviet Union and progenitor of his own melange of Marx-influenced Communism, Lenin remains more of a symbol of the nation he founded than the hammer and sickle. Despite the fact that you can go to Moscow whenever you’d like and see his body preserved in state, the Soviets decided that every nation in Europe’s Eastern Bloc needed graven images around as constant reminders of the power of the state. Much like the statue of Lenin in Seattle, it was once displayed in the former Czechoslovakia. Like that Seattle statue, it was pulled down and now serves as a privately owned oddity that’s for sale at the right price. This statue is heavily damaged and now holds up a garden hose in a backyard in Austria, but it costs significantly less than the $250,000 asking price of the family owned Lenin statue in Fremont.
4. Photo of 19 Captains of the Civil War’s Stone Fleet
Price on eBay:$74,999.99
You’re looking at a picture of failure. These are the 19 captains of ships that comprised the Stone Fleet, a collection of old whaling vessels and captured British ships that were collected in New Bedford, Mass, loaded with stones from the walls in people’s yards and sent down to Charleston, S.C., to be sunk on purpose. The idea was that the sunken vessels would block shipping lanes into the harbor and cut off Confederate supplies. This didn’t happen. Some ships sunk along the way, but the majority were sunk in areas that in no way blocked entry to the harbor. New Bedford’s own Herman Melville wrote an entire poem about the effort, concluding that “A failure and complete, Was your Old Stone Fleet.” We don’t doubt the historical import of this esoteric artifact, but we can also understand why nobody has claimed it.
3. Battle of Little Bighorn 1796 light cavalry sword
Price on eBay:$138,000
On Sunday, June 25, 1876, the Army of The United States intended to capture Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Warriors. On that day, one of these warriors dropped this sword as they lay waste to Gen. George A. Custer’s army. The sword bears the inscription, now faint, “Found at Georg- Custers Slaughter By The Indians” that dates back to the mid-19th Century. Manufactured by josh H. Reddel & Co. this English Model 1796 light Cavalry sword was one of many sold through the American West as surplus items after the Napoleonic Wars. One outlet in the l840s, was the Bordeaux Trading Post near present- day Chadron, Neb., would have been able to sell it to the Sioux warrior believed to have held it last. The current owner is a font of information about this item, and believes he’s narrowed it down to the exact Sioux warrior and an account of its use in battle. If that story is worth six figures to you, just know that a portion of this sale will go to the National Parks Service.
2. Bronze statue of Josef Stalin
Price on eBay:$225,000
Austria remains a repository of Eastern Bloc history, but this 11-foot likeness of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and the two-foot pedestal that comes with it are rare finds. Auctioned off by the Czech city of Litomerice after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this bronze statue of Stalin is stored flat on its back on a mattress in Austria while it awaits a buyer. In shockingly pristine condition for a statue of its vintage, this museum piece comes laden with the weight of history. Stalinism was oppressive by any measure, his “Great Purge” killed millions of Soviets even before the start of World War II, he signed a non-aggression pact with Adolph Hitler and was stunned when Hitler went back on it, he oversaw the greatest death toll of any nation during World War II and starved his people through two famines. That said, he’s also going through a renaissance in Russia and portions of the former Soviet Union right now among youths who see him as a tough guy and a winner. With that knowledge, maybe this statue’s sale price isn’t high enough.
1. Photo of Benito Mussolini with entourage
Price on eBay:$395,000
Benito Mussolini was a journalist and a socialist whose backing of Italy’s ill-advised foray into World War I and reaction to his country’s disdain for that decision prompted him to develop Fascism. A ruling elite, unwavering love of the state, opposition to democracy, protection the class system, continued militarization, state intervention in education and repudiation of egalitarianism gave Mussolini all the ingredients necessary for Fascism, while a cult of personality that placed outsized busts of his head around the country projected power. Never mind that his whole weak operation was considered the “soft underbelly of Europe” or that he was such a coward that he needed a gang of goons known as the Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism (OVRA) to function as his secret police. This photo reminds us that, at one time, he and his cronies had a willing audience for the garbage they were spewing. However, there’s a better picture out there of a dead Mussolini hung by his ankles in a gas station as a crowd throws rocks at him. Let this photo sell for close to $400,000, so long as copies of the latter remain free for all to share.
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