Chantilly, Virginia

30th Annual Civil War Show

by Robert Kyle

The spring Civil War show put on by the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association on April 6 and 7 included 200 dealers and clearly demonstrated how much Civil War-related material has coalesced with the rest of the antiques world.

Talk to some of the dealers, like William Leigh of Hamilton, Virginia, or Dean Thomas of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and they'll tell you that digging old lead bullets from the ground was once the highlight of their collecting experience.

Today, Leigh is selling $30,000 Confederate revolvers or a single uniform button for $10,000. Thomas, his Yankee counterpart, once wrote a book about the bullets he found. Today he has written many books and owns a publishing company overseeing 150 different titles.

Like Civil War dealers, Civil War shows in the 21st century have evolved into sophisticated affairs where an old rifle can cost more than a painted Pennsylvania blanket chest, and a coat from a Georgia officer can be priced higher than highboys.

Hobbyists who once wallowed in trenches looking for spent lead now wheel and deal in a global marketplace where flags, firearms, frock coats, and swords can fetch five figures.

Events like this one, held at the Capital Expo and Conference Center (now the Dulles Expo and Conference Center) in Chantilly, Virginia, are generally organized by regional collector clubs. These shows began as informal show-and-tells where relic hunters would meet to marvel over each other's bullets and belt buckles found in the ground using metal detectors.

Over the years the clubs, the material collected, and the shows have matured. With the spike in interest in anything Civil War following the Ken Burns 1990 PBS series and films such as Gettysburg (New Line Cinema, 1993) and Glory (Columbia Tri-Star, 1989), demand and values increased.

Many of today's Civil War selling events resemble antiques shows. An obvious difference, however, is that there is less furniture and more old guns and swords. Still, fine art, jewelry, books, textiles, timepieces, glassware, pottery, pewter, sterling, cutlery, and other 19th-century goods abound.

Categories of specialty collectors have formed. For instance, Robert Eric French of South Portland, Maine, features wine glasses, decanters, and apothecary jars. Richard Cies of Silver Springs, Florida, displays only medical and scientific implements. Tricia Boynton of Newport, New York, carries items associated with George III, king of Great Britain during the American Revolutionary period. Richmond, Virginia, dealer Malcolm Addoms carries 19th-century optical instruments.

Bob Cammaroto of Alexandria, Virginia, focuses on photography. He's fine-tuned this specialty a step further by offering only photos of identified veterans. "The market for these types of items is always good in that it's a fairly affordable end of the Civil War business," Cammaroto said. "Getting into weapons and uniforms gets extremely expensive. Photos are affordable to the average person. They're items the soldiers purchased themselves to hand out to friends and relatives, much like you might order photographs from a modern studio to send out at Christmas."

Cammaroto said the soldiers would have the photographs made in groups of six for $1.25. "They'd send one home to mother, they'd give one to their best buddy, and they also collected them like baseball cards. Every family had albums of friends and relatives and people they admired. The photos were mass-produced, and they'd trade a [General James] Wadsworth for a [General George B.] McClellan as we'd trade a Yogi Berra card for a Mickey Mantle.

"This was the first type of photography with an everyman availability. Before then, everything was on glass or on metal. Once they developed the process where they could print on paper, it really became affordable. One dollar twenty-five cents or one dollar fifty cents was not an inconsequential amount of money when they were making only thirteen or fourteen dollars a month, but a soldier could afford to have photographs made. Some were signed; some had greetings on the back."

Cammaroto recalled a poignant incident when a collector came face to face with a long-departed soldier.

"We had a guy break down in tears. He had a saber from this person and had been looking for him for twenty years. The man walked up to my table, and there was the soldier, who had signed [his photo] `Respectfully Yours.' The man just broke down and cried for about twenty minutes in front of the table. It was a real emotional thing. It happened in Mansfield, Ohio."

Cammaroto said he's had good success matching photos with identified accoutrements that have been collected. He cited one case when a customer found his relative but had no interest in taking him to the next family reunion.

"A guy came in and said, `My God, that's my great-great-uncle!' He knew exactly where the card was made and what was written on the back before he even saw it. He even had the same name as the soldier and was from the same hometown. But he had absolutely no interest in it."

Cammaroto said generic unidentified photos are worth $35 to $40. An identified one can bring ten times those amounts, depending on the subject.

This particular show started slowly, according to some dealers, but after two or three hours, a good crowd had assembled. The Expo Center, which changed management just days before this event and changed its name to the Dulles Expo and Conference Center after it, had at the same time in its other large building the "Super Pet Expo." The star attraction was a German shepherd said to be descended from the 1950's TV dog star, Rin Tin Tin.

The unusual juxtaposition of events resulted in a packed parking lot where visitors could be seen walking poodles or carrying rifles. Heaven help those who stumbled into the wrong building.

Reflecting on the weekend, Sam Small of The Horse Soldier, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, said, "The show was well attended. We came away with one of our better shows."

He said it's not uncommon for higher-end material to sell days after the show closes, after prospective buyers evaluate the purchase. This was the case with a Confederate frock coat and a Union drum.

Fred Wilkinson of Farmingdale, New York, is concerned escalating prices are putting Civil War material out of reach of new collectors.

"Prices were steadily going up but have leveled off in the past year or two," he said. "We're getting to the point now where some younger people can't afford to buy. If you choke off the younger people, then we're looking for trouble. When you look around here, the people who are opening their wallets all have gray hair.

"We're hurting the younger market," Wilkinson said. "The reason why prices are going up is because ourselves, as dealers, buy from each other because we can't get stock anymore. At the end of a show something will move two or three times from table to table, and it ends up quite a bit higher price wise," he observed.

Dave Marks of Linthicum, Maryland, "walks in both worlds." He does general antiques shows as well as Civil War events. He had a good show, he said, especially with the smaller items. "I sold buttons, but the photographic market is really strong and just keeps growing," he said.

"Guns are a little soft, but swords and bayonets are soaring," commented Ted Gewirz, a dealer from Silver Spring, Maryland. "All the accessories—powder horns, bags, and flasks—are excellent. Guns aren't bad but soft. There are certain guns that never get soft—Colts and Winchesters in fine condition. These are high priced, but you can always buy a cheap piece of junk.

"Civil War guns have slowed down because the prices have gotten so high that too many people can't afford them," he said. "I wish they were down [in price] because we'd have more activity, and we'd have more fun."

Civil War shows such as this occur with regularity up and down the East Coast and west to Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana. They tend not be advertised in antiques trade papers but in specialty publications such as the Civil War News (Web site www.civilwarnews.com). There is also a Web site (www.civilwarshows.com) that lists shows and reenactments.

For more information on this show, write the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association, c/o Bob Buttafuso, President, PO Box 47, Clifton, VA 20124 or visit the Web site (www.nvrha.com).

� 2002 by Maine Antique Digest