05 January 2023
George Prescott discusses ways of displaying and storing your collections of militaria, from medals to uniforms.
With the value of military antiques and memorabilia steadily increasing it makes sense to preserve the items a collector has taken time and trouble to accrue. A little money spent on proper conservation will certainly be an investment and avoid the tragedy which too many of us must have experienced on opening a box containing a particularly treasured item, only to find it has deteriorated beyond hope of salvage.
In general, militaria collections should always be stored in a dry, dust-free environment to which the collector has easy access, because one of the most important rules to follow in order to keep such artefacts in pristine condition is to inspect them regularly. Even weapons displayed as wall pieces benefit from regular attention and in order to facilitate this process, wall fixings need to be secure while also allowing easy access. Aside from the issue of regular cleaning and inspection, when showing a particularly prized relic to a friend it is inconvenient to have to spend 10 minutes unscrewing it from the wall!
One last point, never handle any metal artefact with bare hands. Even if you think your hands are clean, well, they aren't, and the minute amounts of moisture and corrosive salts transferred in this way can seriously damage a metal article. Rusty finger prints on a gun barrel or medal may look artistic from a certain perspective, but it won't add value to a collectible piece, so always handle with cotton or plastic gloves.
Techniques for storing and displaying medals will vary depending upon the requirements of the individual collector. For storage, wrapping in acid-free paper and enclosing in a box or draw is a good technique, plastic wallets being best avoided as some of them can damage certain types of medal in the long term. Medal boxes are also available which hold up to five individual medals neatly and safely.
If the collector prefers to have medals on display, the most popular method is a glass fronted display case (also known as a shadow box in America), although there are several points to consider before mounting any items of real value in this way. Mounting should always be on plastic coated wire to prevent any contact between different metals which can accelerate corrosion and as ribbons will quickly deteriorate if exposed to sunlight, positioning the case should take account of this problem. As well as avoiding sunlight, a collector might consider replacing the conventional glass supplied in some older cases with a product designed to block UV light, which can be obtained from any shop specialising in picture framing, although even with special glass it is still probably a good idea to avoid sunlight. Some manufacturers supply this type of glass as standard in all their cases. One particularly good way to use a display case of this sort is to include weapons, photographs, rank insignia, even pay books alongside the medals, if they invoke a special memory for the collector.
Expect to pay between £25 and £80 for a display case and £30-£40 for a medal storage case, depending upon quality and size.
Award Medals, www.awardmedals.com
C&J Medals, shop.cjmedals.co.uk
Bigbury Mint, which also markets medal cases, bigburymint.com/medal-display
Empire Medals, www.empiremedals.com/collections/medal-case
Custom Historical Displays, www.customhistoricaldisplays.com/medals-display
MESSDRESS.com, [email protected]
Left: Case designed to hold seven medals, these awarded for action between 1941 and 1946 (Award medals)
Uniform collecting has always been a fairly specialised field, especially since the cost of rare items make them difficult for the ordinary collector to afford. Uniforms are best stored flat in the largest container available, which should be made from acid-free cardboard or cast polypropylene of the correct type and cotton gloves should be worn at all times when handling the clothing. A garment suitable for the process should be dry-cleaned, then coat shoulders stuffed with acid-free tissue paper to help them hold their shape before laying the garment on a layer of similar paper placed in the bottom of the storage box. The uniform should then be covered with a second layer of tissue and the box closed and stored in a cool, dry place inside the house, not a loft or garage. A complete examination of each item should be conducted once a year and the uniform refolded, so that the original creases have a chance to fall out. Original uniforms should never be stored on a hanger in a wardrobe and some sort of clothes moth deterrent is also advisable, especially for older garments with a high cotton or wool content.
Right: Black Watch jacket or coatee in free-standing display case (Alexander Shatulin: CC A-S-A 3.0)
To arrange a uniform for display, first purchase a display case tall and deep enough to hold the uniform without crushing or folding. It should also have a rear panel stout enough to hold the weight of the uniform when it is pinned there and covered with material of an appropriate colour. Lay the garment out and stuff the shoulders with acid free tissue paper, before carefully using rust-resistant pins to fix it to the back of the case, making very sure that enough pins are used to secure the garment(s) in position, especially if it is to be displayed vertically. Medals, photographs and other memorabilia can then be positioned securely around the uniform and once everything is satisfactorily completed the case can be closed and placed in the position where it is to be displayed. As with the medal ribbons, strong light should be avoided completely and UV blocking glass would be a good addition. Hats are best stored in a conventional hat box after wrapping in acid-free tissue paper or displayed on a dummy head.
Expect to pay around £250 for a glass-fronted case big enough to take a tunic.
Etsy UK, www.etsy.com/uk
Left: Prussian military helmet mounted on a dummy head (Sebastiensecrets: CC A-S-A 3.0)
SWORDS AND BAYONETS
If a bayonet is not being kept on display, it is best stored out of its scabbard. This serves to discourage moisture accumulation, which can be ruinous if it occurs between a bayonet and its enclosing metal sheath and also prevents wear to both the bayonet and scabbard, a real consideration in the case of a weapon in absolutely mint condition. Blades and metal handles can be lightly greased or oiled before wrapping in acid-free paper or clean cotton cloth and it is probably a good idea to lightly wax any woodwork, using a good quality wax furniture polish, although avoid getting oil on any wooden handles.
There are several methods used by collectors to mount edged weapons as a wall display, but one of the best and cheapest involves a picture hook and nylon fishing line. First, lay out the weapons to be displayed on the floor in front of the wall and spend a little time getting their positions just right. Mark the positions of the items on the wall and then fix a picture hook to the wall space with a nail or screw, depending upon the weight of the object, before cutting a length of nylon fishing line of the appropriate breaking strain.
Fix the line to a convenient point on the object to be hung, such as the ricasso of a bayonet or sword, where it will be out of sight, then loop or twist the line in such a way that neither hook or line will be visible when the object is in position. If a knife or bayonet is to hang at an angle, a small screw or nail can be fixed in the wall to hold the blade at the appropriate point. The clear plastic, stick-on hooks sold in the local DIY shop are also very useful as they tend to be invisible against most wall coverings, but they should only be used for small, very lightweight objects. A sword and shield can also be mounted in this way, the only consideration being the strength of the fishing line to be used.
Alternatively, bayonets, swords and knives can be mounted in a display case of an appropriate size, either mounted on a wall or laid flat on a table. These can be obtained from a number of manufacturers. Incidentally, searching the web showed that there are almost as many ideas for displaying bayonets as there are collectors. Amongst the ideas shared were a specially made coffee table with a reinforced glass top; a collection which sat, six to a case, in empty 18-pounder brass shell cases; and a purpose-built peg rack, in which the bayonets sat in line, like a barrack room rifle rack. Perhaps needless to say, this last was discarded when the owner found himself with young children in the house!
A sword holder from the Heritage Company
Expect to pay around £150 for a small, open fronted case and anything up to £400-£600 for a case with glass on four sides and the top.
Custom historical displays, www.customhistoricaldisplays.com
Etsy UK, www.etsy.com/uk
Heritage Case Company, www.heritagecasecompany.com
Any collector contemplating the purchase of a firearm of any sort needs to consult the appropriate Home Office document to determine its status. Some weapons still capable of firing may be held legally without a firearms certificate (FAC), depending on the age and calibre of the gun, and deactivated weapons should present no problem, but must be accompanied by the appropriate deactivation certificate, issued by either the London or Birmingham Proof House.
Storage of a firearm included on an FAC is subject to very strict rules as to the type of cabinet employed and its location. These conditions will be explained by the local firearms officer, who will inspect the cabinet and its environment before issuing any documentation. In brief, the cabinet must be of an approved design, with one or more five-lever locks, fixed to a solid wall and in a secure environment, such as a bedroom with a door which can be locked.
If a gun being kept in the UK is either a percussion weapon or of an obsolete calibre, and manufactured before 1939, it is classed as an antique or curio and there are no Home Office rules about storage, although careful examination of both the gun and the Home Office list of obsolete cartridges is essential to ensure the weapon complies. The owner of such an antique or relic should follow the same rules as for any metal object, experience showing that the best way to store such a weapon is to oil the internal mechanism and apply a light coating of something like WD-40 to the exterior before wrapping in a clean, perfectly dry cloth or enclosing in a draw-string cloth bag.
Many gun collectors often prefer to keep their antique collections in a display case or gun rack, but a wall display can be achieved by fixing two brackets to the wall and suspending the gun from that arrangement, taking care to place suitable padding material between the bracket and the gun, and showing particular attention to any polished woodwork.
Right: A display case for pistols, showing their historical significance (Custom Historical Displays)
Expect to pay around £150 for a small, open fronted case and anything up to £400-£600 for a case with glass on four sides and the top. Gun racks start at around £50 for an untreated wooden rack which holds six guns vertically and about the same for a rack holding three guns horizontally.
Custom historical displays: www.customhistoricaldisplays.com
Etsy UK, www.etsy.com/uk
Heritage Case Company, www.heritagecasecompany.com
Left: An interesting and unusual collector's item, a cased 88mm shell from a German 8.8cm Flak 18/36/37/41 anti-tank gun (Custom Historical Displays)
One, final point which cannot be emphasised enough is that, whatever a collection consists of, regular examination is essential to preserve medals, bayonets, uniforms or any other military artefact in good condition. Metal objects benefit from regular cleaning with an appropriate proprietary cleaner and uniforms should be regularly taken out of storage or a display case, refolded and checked for clothes moths, especially older woollen garments.
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