One Collector’s Wild Ride -
Quite literally winging it
By Russ Huff
Beginning | The Middle |
A short while ago my beloved aunt died at the age of 98. Aunt Eleanor loved to collect elephant figures for some reason, and when her children rooted through her belongings they found all kinds and sizes of elephants. Probably these were White Elephants in their minds. It seems that all of us collectors are something like my aunt—we hold on to things we treasure, and sometimes they last to the end of our lives.
My collecting, research, writing and publishing started almost 40 years ago. My main interest was wings, especially military aviation badges called “wings”. It’s really a story about someone stumbling into a hobby that became much more than that. Every good story, the Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, has a beginning, middle and end. My hobby story seems to have those clear distinctions, and breaks into three parts. But this is more than a straight- line story; it was more like a wild ride full of surprises and coincidences. I invite you now to hop on the roller coaster and enjoy the ride.
Born before World War II, I grew up with strong impressions and clear memories of that conflict. Uncles went off to war and my married and overage Dad worked in a defense plant building B-29 engines and the family shared in sad times by losing some of its members …as did virtually every family of that time. Growing up in a time of all out world war makes a tremendous impression on a person, one that lasts a lifetime.
When I reached adulthood I wanted to find and own some of the pieces of history of that war—much like a car collector wants to own cars he admired or rode in as a child. Recently minted at Notre Dame with a Master’s Degree in Communication Arts, and newly married to my dear Diane, and soon with a daughter and a home and all that responsibility, I knew that I wouldn’t have much in the way of disposable income for some time to come. That’s why I went about collecting very slowly, learning by reading, observing and taking a small bite once in a while—and usually getting stung with bad pieces in the process. Then things happened that changed my situation. Riding the crest of the wave in corporate life in the late 1960s, with my life and my chosen career in sync, I then felt I had the disposable income available to begin collecting. I was promoted to Vice President of Public Relations for Homart Development Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Even though I had some extra change rolling around in my pockets, that’s not what sparked the quest. Curiously it was my doctor who pushed me into collecting, indirectly I guess, by suggesting that the stress and tension caused by my multiple responsibilities could be alleviated by getting into a hobby. I needed something that was fun, relaxing and had achievable goals. And that is when I started to collect in earnest.
Building on a small coin collection my Dad had left me, I began buying silver and gold coins, and bought the albums necessary to put all those coins down, row by row, so that the old dollars, half-dollars, quarters and so on were in nice, orderly fashion. However, I quickly grew bored by the sameness of those coins, which often were distinguished from each other only by their dates. Disappointed, I went back to the dealers and sold out. Only this time, what I paid 100 per cent for was only worth sixty per cent on the dollar. That didn’t seem right.
It was then that I started to become interested in World War II again. Now I could chase some of that memorabilia I had taken some interest in. So I checked out the items for sale in the Chicago Tribune, drove half way across the city to an estate sale, and bought the thing that appealed to me the most…an SS dagger in great condition. Later, It turned out to be a fake.
Undaunted by that experience, I then bought a German Army helmet from someone offering one at a show. That turned out to be a repainted, nice “replica.” I began to realize that to be in this hobby of collecting militaria, I had to prepare myself for many disappointments and betrayals, and if I were to stay the course I would get ripped off many times.
Feeling that I needed a mentor, I discovered that a neighbor down the street was into this stuff, and we had some conversations about it. Then he started to sell me things he had. Trusting him to help me, I bought some daggers, medals and guns. This time I really got stung, since he either sold me bad pieces or greatly overcharged me for the good ones. At this point, I just about ready to quit collecting since paradoxically there was even more stress coming into my life where there was supposed to be less.
Then one of my “good” neighbor’s buddies, who watched what the neighbor was doing to me stepped in and took pity on my feeble efforts. Jimmy introduced me to the guys he knew who were doing it right, and told me about the shows and how he found things through vets. This time I went about it slowly and paid my dues. It wasn’t long before I was making friends, exchanging ideas, attending shows, buying items and building a nice Third Reich collection.
At that point, I collected broadly, with no real plan. I put an ad in the Sears Tower employee newsletter, and started picking up items from those vets. With the pieces came their stories, which I really enjoyed hearing. If a rifle appealed to me, or a badge or medal or whatever, I’d buy it. One time I traveled home on the commuter train with a mannequin a display manager gave me. Imagine that, and some of the thoughts of my fellow passengers! Once I arrived home with a German gas mask, and when I tried it on, our dog snarled at me and nearly bit my leg off. Obviously, this was not something for the whole family to enjoy.
Then one day by happenstance, as these things go, I was over to Jimmy’s house checking out some German pistols that he was selling. As I sat there pondering a purchase, something caught my eye. On his wall there was a frame of what appeared to be silver wings, about 15 in all. I asked about them and the first thing I knew, they were sitting in my lap. Immediately I was drawn to these silver and gold wings and I asked my buddy Jimmy what types they were and their value. He said he had researched them by going to the library and checking out a wartime National Geographic. Jimmy then said he’d sell me the whole lot for $40. On a whim, I bought my first wing collection and ignored the pistols. I had found a new interest!
That day marked the beginning of my wing collecting, on a spring day in 1974 some 34 years ago. What surprised me was how reasonable this hobby was in comparison to the highly priced Nazi stuff, which of course came with the usual negative feelings. I could buy and sell these wings for five bucks apiece at that time. Quickly I began selling out of my German items and building a kitty. For months on end I would search the shows, digging under and around the other items until I found my wings. I was getting good at identifying them and buying right. It wasn’t long before I found other sources, and sometimes added ten or 20 wings at a single purchase. Then the great silver boom began, and it seemed as though everyone was turning in his or her extra jewelry and keepsakes for the value of the silver content. Smelters would call and I would buy in bulk. One time I purchased ten sterling silver Josten Senior Pilot wings for their silver value alone—around ten bucks a piece. Soon I was awash in wings, and had accumulated a wide variety of designs, patterns and shapes and then started to compare them for beauty, quality and relative rarity. I grew to like certain designs, and pass on others. I quickly had my complete US military wing sets, then my paramilitary pieces such as flight instructor and WASP and what have you. This was the heyday of collecting wings, in the mid to late 1970s, and there will never be another time like it.
The only trouble was I couldn’t keep what I was doing a secret very long. Others took notice, and my troubles began again. Even that cotton pickin’ neighbor down the street got involved, probably to yank my chain. The German collectors started to chase the wing craze as well. By the time I would arrive at shows, some of them had already worked the tables and dug out the hidden treasures. On show weekends when I was tired from my other responsibilities to family and work, I never could seem to get up early enough to beat these guys to the punch. With all this new competition, there was the inevitable price escalation. Wings went from five bucks a piece up the scale to $40 and $50. For that price we could buy almost anything. But still, compared to today, they were a real bargain.
It was comforting to form my network of buddies that I could trust. Since I spread my interest to search for “other country” wings as well as those of the USA, there was always something turning up. Then some significant, pivotal things happened. One of my closest associates in the hobby, Frank, the very one who pointed out the coming wave that was wing collecting, found out about the huge Stoneberg collection that was up for sale in the south. He was determined to buy it, but he wanted to go it alone and shelled out what I estimate to be about $40,000 to obtain it—a huge sum and risk at that time. Then he called those of us in who were qualified in his mind to come over and see the collection. He had taken out his key “keepers”beforehand, but there was everything else all laid out, board after board after board, thousands of wings and variations from all nations, all for the taking at bulk prices. Frank set per unit pricing, often selling at $6 each for large purchases, and I picked out as much as I could afford, and then he’d round it off. I believe I was the first guy in, but felt restricted at the time to limit my purchases to about $5,000 in the first go-around. I cherry-picked all I could, waited until others went in, and went back around again. Frank in the meantime was showing great wear and tear from the pressures to prove to his wife that the second mortgage he took out on the house was worth the risk. Almost overnight, Frank started to change. He looked puffy, couldn’t sleep, and said he felt fatigued all the time. Then one morning his wife called me to tell me that during the night Frank sat straight up in bed and then keeled over. The paramedics pronounced him dead at the home. He was only 49. My mentor, my inspiration, my friend… was gone literally overnight.
I mourned for weeks. It felt like there was no reason to keep going. But the sad times continued. Tragedy struck again, and then again. Dick, a famous collector in Chicago who had put together perhaps the best military aviation badge collection in the world, was attending the Cincinnati show (Ohio Valley Military Show) and felt ill, so he left the hall to go out to his car. They found him dead in the back seat the next morning. Dick died at 44, leaving behind a houseful of kids and apparently some heavy debts.
Again, shock set in. Time passed. Then came opportunity, big time. This huge, entire collection was going up for sale. I did all I could to befriend the family but never tried to take advantage of the situation. All I wanted was to be alerted as to where and when the collection would start to come out. They didn’t always keep that end of the bargain, but I was there most of the time when they did, and I bought all the wings I could afford, and by wings I’m referring to the aviation badges of many countries—with emphasis on World War II. I tried to limit myself to World War II flight badges, but for many nations there were patterns on the table that seemed like they were old, and there was no one who knew much about them. Too often I speculated and bought ahead of my knowledge. When I made those purchases, it was winging it, pure and simple.
A third wing collector died shortly after that. Again, he left a massive collection and a large show display of a hundred or more cases, and wouldn’t you know it, that neighbor down the street who was an insurance agent, got to the widow and took the stuff home to sell. I leave it between God and him concerning the fairness of his treatment of her. What I do know is that once again the marketplace was filled with supply…and the prices were going up. I didn’t have to drive more than 20 miles in any direction to find all the wings and flight badges I could ever want. All it took then was cash and guts.
Some wag said of all this at the time: “What is it with you wing collectors? Do you all die young?”
One other element entered into this equation at this point in our story. A close associate of Frank’s and a very advanced collector named John started to befriend me. We would meet for supper sometimes at a halfway point between our cities, and he would bring along wings or foreign flight badges that he had a picker send him from Europe. In the dark of the hotel lounge he would pull out the piece and sigh with admiration over it. And he expected me to purchase it. I had to believe what he told me. And naively I did. Then he would say, “If my wife calls you, let her know you were just with me…and in the meantime I’ve got a hot date with a gal in the motel across the street.” Now let’s see, his own wife couldn’t trust him, but I was supposed to. Well, all this ended badly as well, when he was caught in his infidelity, had a nervous breakdown and eventually sold off his collection. In the end, sometime after I had left the area, I understand that the frames from his displays were on the basement floor and guys were just picking through them while stepping over the debris.
John was my chief source of information about worldwide wings. He furnished me with books, gave me contacts and passed on to me what he couldn’t handle. It was a strange relationship and most of the time I believed him and trusted his information. In those days, the mid- seventies, it was the best you would ask for. There were no books on wings out as yet, no Chalif research, and as yet no Campbell book. The Luftwaffe was covered by Bender, but the US was still in the primitive, “National Geographic stage”. Now I was truly out on a limb but feeling somewhat confident about what I had discovered as I amassed a collection of 1600 wings and badges. Then it dawned on me. What was I going to do with all this?
Our story has reached 1980 and by this time all my mentors and their sources of supply had faded out of my life. I used to weigh all this while I studied my huge wing collection. Drawing upon my college training in communication arts and from my corporate experience in public relations, as well as the experiences I had while editing and writing books and magazine articles, I decided that I had an obligation to get this information out in book form.
My personal circumstances had begun to change as well. I was again promoted at Sears, this time to International Public Relations Director, and I traveled overseas a great deal. I had found the manufacturer of most of the South American aviation wings and badges in Lima, Peru, and had bought literally hundreds and hundreds of those wings at some $2 or $3 bucks a piece. Then I would haul them home, declaring them in customs as artwork, with no tariff. I’d take them to shows and sell them for $15 a piece if I could get that, and gradually I built up another a kitty. This would provide the means to extend my wing collection but it also set the stage for the book I was planning.
Now began the greatest independent work I have ever done in my entire life. I decided to write a book called Wings of World War II. It would be based almost entirely upon my assembled collection. I would draw from the show stories, the books I had read, and the hands-on evidence in front of me. This would be a book for collectors, providing more information that any book had given before or since, of the flight badges of 39 combatant countries in World War II, seen for the first time both front and back, giving sizes and colors and their time frames. As an individual collector with no publisher, this was a massive undertaking with no certitude of success. But I felt instinctively that I had to do it.
First of all, it took many months of evenings on end to write the book. The actual production process took five years in all. My daughter began to help me take photos, but she soon outgrew the task. But I learned photographic techniques from her. My equipment was primitive by today’s standards, simply a Nikon camera good for close-ups, a light stand with two flexible, very hot bulbs, and a board to lay the pieces on. Many a night for years I bent over that camera and peered at those pieces illuminated by those lights. My eyes grew so blurry that often I felt blinded. I was so bent over that I had trouble standing straight the next day. My typical days were like this--work into the night, then get up early for that trip downtown, arriving often bleary-eyed and burnt out. A store designer and a secretary from Sears International were in my pay, and I shelled out cash to each for their help in preparing the layout pages—one typed the manuscript and captions, the other laid out the pages. We did everything by hand, since at that time there were no computers for this sort of work. I took rolls and rolls of photos, and picked among them, discarding the rest. This process went on for years until one day there was a scary interruption.
At Sears we had been feeling rumblings that continued to get more ominous that things were not going that well for the corporation. Competitors with much less overhead, such as Kmart and Wal Mart, were making huge inroads. Major shopping malls had replaced the one-stop Sears store. Wider selection and quality at the malls drew shoppers away from our stores. Rumors circulated that Sears was stuck in old concepts that once worked wonderfully for farmers and rural folk but no longer were valid. Times had changed, and with it tastes had changed. The Sears catalog, revered for almost a century, was discontinued. The company’s expansion slowed, and inside Sears the 400,000 employees were on notice that personnel had to be eliminated. It became a scary witch-hunt. People had to go and it became a numbers game. I saw memos circulate, some even requiring my editing, that eliminated my department and my function. This was restructuring at its most personal level. Eventually it did catch up to me. Our International Group was being “downsized” (sold off), my public relations department eliminated and I personally was turned over to an outplacement company. Eventually Sears International ceased to exist, and then AllState, Dean Witter, and even Homart were sold off. Today Sears has been humiliated by its merger with Kmart under the Sears Holding company which quite literally took it over in a hostile move by venture capitalists. Today that venture is stumbling as well. Some are staying the old Sears is in a death spiral.
At this point, for the first time in my life, my career was up for grabs. This was 1982, a time of recession in the US. No one was hiring, especially at the upper ranges. I was caught up in all this, with six months of pay to figure things out. My work on the book was proceeding, and my personal editing team at Sears continued to work on the book production discreetly even as I searched outside the company. The book, as it was finally coming together at last, was now just a sideshow to my life. When my team finished its work and had been paid, I had to pack it all in boxes and put it away. As I sorted through career options and tried several things from the print business to multi-level marketing, I felt drawn to real estate. Studying for the exams, and then obtaining first a salesman’s license and a real estate broker’s license, I went to work full time in that industry, which eventually drew me to Florida. Once here, my wife taught school and I ran my own business, but I didn’t feel comfortable with taking on any more risk—especially with a massive mound of layouts, and the prospect of printing a book with an uncertain, possibly non existent audience.
Then Diane and I realized that we had to take a major plunge. In Florida the heat and humidity were taking a toll on the books layout pages, which were starting to yellow as the photos began to curl. Something had to be done or the project would have to be abandoned. We weighed our options and finally decided to borrow the money against savings. We searched for a suitable printer and decided to publish the book ourselves after testing possible other routes. It was now late 1984, almost five years since the project was started. And so we self-published-- which was a huge risk for a private individual with no marketing plan, no shipping department, and of course, no idea how the marketplace would accept the book.
The rest is history. The book was a surprising, immediate success and filled a huge void in collecting since it addressed the entire 39 combatant countries of World War II. My research was primitive by many standards, and my techniques adequate but not sharp, and I couldn’t afford color pages, but the badges I believed were all originals, and much of the information was groundbreaking. Collectors from all fields wrote and thanked me, saying they took the book to shows to identify what appeared on tables. It began to be called the “bible for wing collectors”. Within a year the book was award winning as well and received more accolades.
Wings of World War II was never intended to be the final word on collecting the aviation flight badges of that period. It was not meant to be a perfect, scientific study but rather a guide to identifying wings of that period. It contained hundreds of photos of fronts and back, my photos, of my wings and badges, and obviously I did not have today’s equipment, nor could I afford today’s wide use of color. Some shots were somewhat dark and not precise as required today when there are so many good fakes, yet the book still guided a whole generation of collectors who were very appreciative and voiced it.
Today, more than 25 years later, there are the almost limitless resources of the internet, as well as instant messaging, crystal-clear color photography, a wealth of available information and chat rooms where collectors of all nations share precise, historical definitions and expectations. They usually analyze a small segment of the field I tried to cover in only 250 pages. Most of the time I had been right on, but at other times I missed the barn door by a mile. I particularly messed up the Japanese and Italian sections. As for the United States section, I had left it for last and was the hardest to complete. Up to that time it was the best ever done on the wings of the World War II period, both Army and Navy and all the rest, showing reverses for the first time, but it was finished at the very time of my most demanding personal transitions. I was later criticized not publishing larger photos by a leading authority, but that’s another story.
Then the rest of the story unfolded. I was sitting on a gold mine of aviation materials, by then some 2000 wings and badges in all, and I had no way to display and protect them properly. One very frightening day I learned that lesson well. We were building a new home and had taken a rental condo here in Sarasota. I had a steel gun case purchased years earlier from Sears and at that time it’s where I stored all my treasures. The night before this incident I had been in the case, looking at my “buried” treasures again, when I was interrupted. I left things as they were and never completely sealed and locked the case. The very next day, while we were out at work, robbers entered our condo and ripped out our electronics and grabbed jewelry and other fast sell items. The police thought they were “druggies”, young people looking for a quick buck. They even took some of my wife’s best keepsakes, but they missed the closet (because of a lack of time?) where the aviation collection was exposed and accessible--and thankfully they missed the real treasures in the place.
This middle section can now be summarized. After the book was published, it became like a Sears catalog. Collectors grew obsessive and began offering good monies for the badges. I found my activities all merged into one business, that of selling the book and then the wings. Money poured in, we righted ourselves and began to prosper again, and it seemed the right thing to do at the time. So the mountain of some 2000 wings and flight badges began to wear down, and down. Major collectors of that time moved in with planned purchases, and I crossed over from being a collector of wings to being a dealer in this field. I was told that for years I was the “Wing King”, but the mantle truly passed on to the real Wing King, whose name I promised never to reveal. He is alive today and would blow away all of the eBay pretenders, and especially the biggest blowhard of them all. Imagine an aviation wing collection worth upwards of a million dollars, with every variation and wing pattern, all the makers, with incredible quality and depth, all eras, with some variations such as Pilot going 70 deep. It’s there, but not flaunted about. But then again, class will shine, and my best customer and longtime friend of 20 or more years does shine out for all those who are privileged to know him.
My adventures in publishing continued with the appearance of Companion to Wings of World War II in 1987 where I corrected some mistakes that appeared in the book and shared the experiences of a self-published collector. Next came the journal, Wings and Things of the World, which ran as a quarterly for six years and 24 issues. That period was an amazing time as many longtime, high quality collections, some that started right after the war to the present, began to go back on the market. Collection after collection passed through here, and in the end I estimated I had handled through my company, R.J.Huff and Associates, Inc.--and reported for tax purposes-- some two million dollars of almost every imaginable item that was presented to me for sale. I studied and tried to learn from every piece, and gave it my best shot when I didn’t know something or wasn’t sure of an item. For many years I had felt the goods, seen the variations, examined the good and discarded the bad. Collectors back then shared war stories and helped each other. I became the leader of the pack, and did my best, or at least I hope I did. I’m sure I made my share of mistakes. A generalist as such tries the best he can to learn something about everything. My intentions were good, that’s for sure.
Closing the chapter called the middle of the story, I reached what I thought was the end of my involvement with wings on a large scale. I wrote two more books, Winging It I and Winging It II and wrapped it all up. I sold off most of the highest quality material I had ever handled, which by that time were the aviation groups with impressive original art by Raymond Waddey and authentic, amazing pieces of history provided to me by a researcher, historian and educator who was also an Air Force Captain. He had approached historical figures, aviation heroes, flyers on famous missions, and so on and asked them for original materials he could use in his classes. Later he would sell them to me. All of this went on very quietly and effectively for a number of years after I sold the rights to Wings and Things and had retired to pursue my own personal enjoyment of the hobby.
In all those first 15 years after Wings of World War II came out, the worst I ever heard was “it’s all full of repros” and considering the source, I had to smile at the hypocrisy. Most of the time a dedicated collector would draw my attention to other things that were mis-identified or something omitted...done in a spirit of sharing and mutual learning. Fair enough, and helpful, too.
And through all this, many collectors became my friends even though they often were also my competition and we exchanged information and theories and there was a strong, healthy bond in the wing collecting community. We were a brotherhood of sorts.
About then, I was ready to stop. I thought that was the end of my involvement in wings after a 20-year run, in the fall of 1995. I had sold off the rights to use the name Wings and Things of the World. Then, out of the blue, one of the major collections of our time came back around again. One of my best customers and an early mentor in the business end of things as well asked me to sell his collection in a hurry. I put out an entirely new publication dedicated to selling of his collection. It came to nearly 100 pages and the items were met with a great deal of enthusiasm. This sale eventually ended after a while, the accounting handled, and for the most part the collector was satisfied. Now, I was determined to get back to my private retirement pursuits.
Then came another surprise. The memorabilia of the US Navy’s Ace of Aces and Medal of Honor winner was available and close to me in Florida. I was unaware of all the restrictions around it, as was the family member who contacted me, but we worked it all out to the satisfaction of the Medal of Honor Society and government dictates. Today I have some of the “rest of the estate.” While most of the material has moved down the line, to be kept by other caretakers, there is as well a smattering of all else, from US to Japanese and German to British to whatever. These are the reminders of what was and what went through here in those amazing days when everything seemed to come down the pike and pass through my hands on the way to others. Looking back, I realize and others have mentioned that it was a magical time of some fifteen years. It was the wing collectors’ time of Camelot.
In many ways, I wish it would have ended there. I was feeling good about the contribution I made to the hobby. I had many hobby friends, some neat items to recall those times, and a warm fuzzy feeling about my place in the history of wing collecting.
Today, things have changed. There is a nasty spirit in the air, one of suspicion and criticism and negativity, probably brought on by the terrible influx of fakes. We are all having the problem today of people criticizing us, blowing things out of proportion, and trying to drag us down. It seems that the more successful you are, the more they criticize. It starts with attacks on the president and goes on down. Apparently today not everyone will celebrate with you if you have done something that represents hard work and a labor of love. I’ve found it’s best not to take today’s cynical attitude personally since some people resent it if someone else stands in their way of boasting and making themselves important in the eyes of others. We all have stones thrown at us, it seems, and its really best to dodge them, and don’t drink poison in the well, and not let their venom be injected in our veins.
Perhaps it’s that they feel convicted by our own honest attempts and clean approach to life. They feel the need to tear us down in order to make themselves feel more important. It appears we have to accept that people will make cutting remarks. It’s best to say “Every day is a gift from God and my time is way too valuable to live in resentment and anger.” You simply can’t please everyone. If you do something in life, not all will be your cheerleaders. They will criticize, often unfairly. It’s not my job to convince these types. We need to stay true to our course and if it’s the best you can do, there’s nothing to worry about.
Forget about getting everyone on board. They’ll steal your joy. Some people love to take their shots and our best reaction is to smile, stay happy and just be yourself. Stay confident in what you are and who you are.
So if you do anything creative, there are those who will criticize you for a number of motives and reasons. We admit that what we do is not perfect, but your detractors are imperfect as well, and worse. Don’t sink to their level.
Basically, I don’t believe it’s anything I’ve done to change the conditions and attitudes.
As I tinker at the edges of the marketplace I encounter a new breed of collectors, These are the guys who have been worked over by the fakers and dealers who have sold out. In the marketplace today there are so many good fakes, restrikes and fantasy pieces—all created to fool them and steal their money. In this environment I am sometimes challenged and questioned, criticized and yes, defamed. One guy, apparently used to fraudulent dealings in every facet of his life, runs around telling new collectors that I am a fraud. It’s as though he believes everyone is like him, a boastful braggart with an evil heart. Foreign collectors question more and more parts of the book and ask, “Why did this or that appear in the book”? One fellow who runs a web site on wings says I’m called an idiot for not knowing something that today is obvious. Why weren’t the photos brighter and clearer (I never did mention my problems with the printer who literally went out of business during the books production, nor the horrendous storage problems, mistakes in shipping, or the financial pressure that didn’t ease for a couple of years)? Why didn’t I publish in color? Why didn’t I put out the alarm about fakes? Quite frankly, under the circumstances, it’s obvious that the book almost never came to be. So why should I be defensive now? I believe I pioneered something important, and paid my dues. I was never a true expert, and never claimed to be. In fact, time and again I told collectors that I too was a student of the hobby as well, and appreciated their honest and generous exchanges.
Today, I hear all these things about others as well, as though everyone is being painted with the same broad strokes of negativity. This is the most painful, difficult time I have ever seen in the hobby. Apparently if you do anything creative, you had better develop a thick skin since the critics will come out blasting. Most criticism, I’ve observed, is based on jealousy, or just plain envy. And some in the hobby relish their roles in destroying other’s reputations since it probably makes them feel more important if they bring others down to their level. These critics like to blow things out of proportion, or paint us with their own inferior motives of greed or corruption. It appears that the more successful you become, the more you get dumped on. In any career, there are people love to take shots at you just because they can. These are mostly new kids on the block, fellows in this for only a few years, who want to be admired for their knowledge. They just feel better about themselves when they attack their predecessors, those who have made major contributions before they even began in the hobby. I compare them to those drivers who jump on the Interstate and roar down to the next exit and peel off onto the off ramp. They are not in it for anyone’s good except themselves. Then they are gone.
One other trend that has me disturbed is the lack of commitment some buyers feel towards their purchases. Three times in a rather short period of time I had buyers commit to very large purchases, and then go silent, absolutely unresponsive to e-mails and calls. It’s as though the seller is not worth the time it takes to explain why conditions have changed. Or they consult with someone who tries to kill the deal in order to sell something they have to the buyer. They use the technique that to pump up their importance they have to destroy the buyer’s confidence in you, the original seller. Apparently, “My word is my bond” is no longer operable in the hobby world.
If you’ve made a major contribution to collecting, not everyone will celebrate with you. I hear through the grapevine that I’ve been selling bad pieces (I really haven’t sold much directly to the public in 12 years and then it was only something out of my personal collection that the collector really wanted. I have gone on eBay to sell a few odds and ends, and made a couple of private deals. My publications and some sports items still sell. But still the claims are made that I’m like all those bad dealers who are simply out to fool the public with stories and claims. I guess my best isn’t worthy enough anymore.
But I often I also get those messages or calls or letters that say thanks for pulling it all together, and for producing a grand book that stands the test of time. I hope it does. All science moves on. But will there ever be another book quite like it, with all the combatant countries of the world in one place? I doubt it. It’s just about impossible to assemble all those wings and badges again. And cost prohibitive.
Now, what do I think about what I see today? This is the hard part, since all the earlier comments were historical in nature, and this section is subjective since it comes from my heart instead of my head.
I see the world of wings in chaos. What began decades ago with five-dollar wings and honest originals has descended into hell. Restrikes and reproductions are everywhere, and they are good, accurate, often struck directly from original dies, and some with the finer touches of soldered posts and logos in the correct, wartime position. The wings on the market are wildly unpredictable both in availability and pricing. On eBay, it’s a day by day sort of thing no one can plan. And because the science has been furthered, more is known of the makers and marks, but more is also known about remaking them. Fantasy pieces are appearing in greater numbers. It’s buyer beware, big time.
Whom can you trust? The old time dealers bemoan the fact that the eBay effect has ruined the market. Prices for rare items are no longer reliable. Buyers are skiddish, and feel they are being pulled from one posturing prophet to another. Sellers who are in it full time and live off the stuff are by and large very critical of other dealers. Collectors in it for five years or less are going around puffing themselves up as the next coming of the king of wings. There is so much pretending, and posturing and criticizing that the warm friendly club of collectors once bonded together in a cause is for all practically purposes dead. Trust is out the window, and accusations of fraud go flying in all directions.
The new collector today is perhaps, sad to say, to be pitied. New collectors don’t know who to listen to, and they pay an outrageous price to get a foothold. The big, monied guys that could move in and build high quality collections with trusted dealers are a thing of the past. When they catch on that an eBay “buddy” who promised to work for them has been reaming them royally, they recoil and disappear. I’ve seen that first hand and it makes you want to recoil and disappear as well.
Yes, there has always been the thrill of the chase, as is exhibited daily on eBay. The collectors swarm in on pieces that others are attracted to, and devour them at very high prices. But there are many other pieces ignored –such as many non-sterling pieces that were the real thing.
Yes, the glory days are over, at least for me and many others of my generation, and it’s not simply a question of age. We feel uncomfortable with the pace and spirit of things in the hobby. There was a time when everything seemed good, and for the most part was, and then a later time when the reproductions were coming in but it was still easy to distinguish them. Today, it’s a giant mess of greed, fraud, lost opportunity, vanity, distrust and disbelief.
I was sharing these feelings with an old collector buddy recently, and he wrote me a very perceptive message in return. “ You know”, he said, “you sound an awful lot like my father, who rose to some prominence in American business. He had kept up with things for a while doing some consulting and ‘keeping his hand in it.’ But there came a time when he let it all go and said that it just doesn’t matter to him anymore, that family and friends and his retired life and the enjoyment of same meant more than keeping in touch with what used to be. He also said that ‘that’s the glory of time, God’s greatest gift. When you have the time, then you are a part of your times. But when the times start leaving you behind, then your time is up…your time is gone…and it’s time for the younger ones to take the helm, for good or ill, and it’s their time to be in command…for a time…and then others will take their turn…and it will be their time in the sun. That’s one of God’s most subtle and greatest gifts, that in their time people have the time…of their lives. But time marches on and so others will take over and have the time of their lives. Everyone has a crack at it, but no one has it for long.’ I would attempt now to suggest to you, what is the best for you, now, at this time. Only you can decided, but it sounds like you are leaning a certain way…”
Yes, that friend is right. I am checking out, going quiet, slipping away silently into my own pursuits. My day, my time in the hobby is done.
“Those were the days my friend, I thought they’d never end…” crooned old Archie Bunker. But for all things, Holy Scripture says, under the sun there is an end. Everything has its season, and it’s a time of blooming and flourishing, but then that time waxes and withers and dies. I was there in the early, fun years. But over the last number of years I’ve seen great collections form and disintegrate, often badly. I see others hanging on until the end…and then what? We are all stewards in the end, and have the responsibility to care of things before passing them on. This is the way of the world. As we leave, we can only wonder “ have I been a good, honest steward of the hobby?” If we tried our best, flaws and all, then we can walk out with our heads held high.
I salute the good guys who did it right or are trying their best today, hanging on because of their love for the hobby and their abiding interest in history and its heroes.
But for me it’s time to quit the chase and to say goodbye. It’s done, all deals settled, all books written, all ideas finalized. No more late nights writing books, no more pending deals waking me up in the middle of the night, no more gas masks to frighten the dog, no more lists and sales, and no more returns I hope I made something of a contribution, a difference, to the wing world--leaving something positive behind. I hope to have made a positive impact on what was once so vitally a part of me. It was never my intention to leave a legacy here, and never my goal to be the wing king. My life is full of more important commitments and issues.
What I did, motivated by the deep-seated excitement of discovery, the thrill of the chase and dedication to the hobby, was to create at least a ripple in the pond. It spread and spread until now it seems to be spent. Meanwhile, I’m happy to be concentrating on this last part of my life with my wife and family, grandkids and, more spiritually, with my church, ministries and beliefs. For one last time, goodbye, good luck and good hunting! God bless you all.--RJH