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Armed conflicts are of great historical interest to many, and artifacts related to them are very collectible. Militaria, or military memorabilia are collectible items related to the military, and specifically military history. There are many kinds of items that fall under the category of militaria. They include weaponry, uniforms, insignia, photography, medals, documents, and more.
Throughout all of known history, groups have fought each other for land, power, or resources. Spears, slings, and cutting tools are found throughout the archaeological record. While they may have been primarily used for hunting, one can imagine that they also came in handy when attacking or defending oneself from another tribe. Sometime during the Late Stone Age (50,000 to 12,000 BCE), humans developed the mace. A mace is a stick with a heavy stone at the end. Its shape suggests that it was used for human combat. In fact, a relief carving from 3100 BCE depicts Menes, the first pharaoh to unite Egypt, smashing the head of his enemy with a mace.
In the Bronze Age, which began around 3000 BCE, weaponry advanced significantly. A bronze sword, for example, was far more effective than a stone or wooden weapon. Metal was more expensive to produce, but it didn't break easily. Bronze casting could only be accomplished by people with the collective resources and manpower to do so. With this technology, however, they gained an enormous advantage when battling other groups.
After the invention of metallurgy, military technology began to advance quickly. In the last millennium, we began to use armor, catapults, marine and equine weaponry, and explosives (after gunpowder was developed in China around 900 CE). In the last 100 years or so, we’ve begun using airplanes, missiles, and nuclear technology, completely changing how wars are fought. Artifacts collected by military enthusiasts fit the trajectory of military development. Today, the majority of militaria is tied to military institutions or conflicts in the past century or two.
Militaria can be classified into several categories. Weaponry is a significant kind of militaria. It includes various kinds of firearms, swords, daggers, and more. Uniforms are also collectible and may include headgear, sashes, suits, jackets, and other items. Medals, epaulettes and items of commendation are another important category of militaria. Documents related to war, such as propaganda materials, official notices or correspondence, or personal letters are another important category of militaria. Photography or other visual records related to war are also a kind of collectible militaria.
Items of militaria are valued according to several factors, including age, country of origin, condition, and provenance. The age of an item is related to the conflict it was produced for. Buyers look for pieces related to specific conflicts they are interested in. Additionally, buyers may seek items that are from a particular country or military force.
Condition is also important for assessing the value of militaria. Items should be kept in stable conditions, away from harmful environmental conditions like humidity or sunlight. Depending on the type of object, you may need to care for it in a particular way. For instance, paper items should be kept in acid-free folders. Fabric items should be stored properly, away from moths or dank conditions. Overall, it is important to research how to care for your item. Be aware that repairs or alterations may affect the value and always consult an expert before permanently changing the piece in any way. Finally, the most expensive militaria is often related to an important historical figure. If your item is connected to a prominent figure it will be more important and valued by buyers.
A Greek Bronze helmet from the 6th century BCE went for $162,500 at Christie's in 2018. The helmet was made in the Corinthian style, covering most of the face with a single piece of metal, with two small slits for the eyes. In 2007, a 14th century Japanese katana sword was sold for $120,000 at Christie's. The katana was attributed to the famous craftsman Norishige.
Three jade imperial archer’s rings from China were sold for $16,800 at Sotheby’s in 2007. However, that is nowhere near the selling price of a single archer’s ring that sold for $350,662! This ring was made of jade, inscribed with poetry and fit into a cinnabar box. It was from 1788, during the Qianlong reign of the Qing Dynasty.
A Nepalese Bira gun went for $15,000 in 2017. The gun was made in the 1890s, and based on a British machine gun. It is handmade, with a wheeled wooden base and decorative inscriptions.
A very rare battleflag from the American Revolutionary War was sold at auction for $12,336,000. The red and white silk flag was decorated with 13 stripes in the background and a striking center design of a winged explosion. It was the earliest known flag of the colonists, and had been captured in battle by British forces. Another item from this era, a militia payroll dating from 1775, was sold for $7560 by Sotheby’s.
In 2014, Sotheby’s sold a letter by Abraham Lincoln praising General Grant for bringing an end to the Civil War. The letter was written four days before the South surrendered. Nine days later, Lincoln was assassinated. The letter was sold for $575,000.
The most surprising militaria items sold at auction, however, are grenades. This category of militaria should probably be avoided! There have been instances of antique grenades exploding, injuring and even killing the owner. Still, they are being collected. A US military grenade produced for World War Two was sold for $3500 in 2019.
Leah Illingworth is a content specialist here at Mearto. She loves learning and writing about art and antiques each day in addition to exploring the history and stories behind art movements and objects.