Manion's Auction House Capitalizes On Military Memorabilia Nostalgia

From antique helmets to badges and flags, anything is fair game

A DIRT road winding through hilly farmland here leads to three unmarked warehouses filled with Japanese Samurai swords, Nazi SS officers' uniforms, and other relics of wars past.

Few visitors frequent this spot near the Missouri River, but collectors worldwide are eagerly buying the kind of military memorabilia contained at the headquarters of Manion's International Auction House. That demand has transformed a hobby in Ron Manion's home into what he calls the world's largest silent auction house for military collectibles.

``This stuff gets you into the lessons of history,'' Mr. Manion says, standing in a warehouse cluttered with racks of military uniforms, boxes of antique helmets, and thousands of badges and small souvenirs in sealed plastic bags.

``You get a better perspective on the world than you would just going through school or reading a newspaper.''

Fueled partially by an interest in this year's 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, military souvenirs are growing in popularity.

Manion, formerly a General Motors auto worker dabbling in military souvenirs for some extra bucks, said goodbye to the assembly line in the early 1970s. Despite an isolated location and little capital investment, Manion began drumming up interest by selling catalogs to prospective clients.

Today, Manion publishes five catalogs every six weeks with photographs, descriptions, and minimum bid amounts for about 100,000 auction lots. Among the offerings: A wedding sword belonging to Adolf Hitler's deputy Hermann Goering (final bid a few years ago: $67,000). Just last month, the daughter of an American Korean War hero auctioned his Medal of Honor at Manion's for $10,500, considerably above her minimum price of $5,000.

``We consider ourselves the Wall Street of collectibles,'' Manion says, explaining that the auction process ``helps develop a fair market value.'' He also publishes a booklet of the prices paid at previous auctions to guide sellers in setting subsequent bids.

Minimum bids in a current catalog include $3,500 for the uniform of an Italian fascist, Field Marshall, and $600 for a 19th-century reproduction of a medieval helmet. Many smaller items, such as a Soviet propaganda flag ($60), sell for less than $100.

The auction house sells each year about 200,000 pieces, bringing in $5 million to $10 million, up about three fold from the mid-1980s, Manion says. Of this amount, he keeps roughly 25 percent in commissions - 10.5 percent to 15 percent from the seller and 7.5 percent to 18 percent from the buyer. And bids come in from all over the world.

Since collectors do not know what others have bid, Manion reduces high bids to 5 percent above the next highest bid as a safeguard to his customers.

Just about anything military is fair game as far as Manion is concerned, except for human parts such as skulls. He is also reluctant to trade in Nazi concentration camp uniforms.

The growing popularity of military collectibles has also enriched collectors and veterans. ``All militaria is a super duper investment,'' Manion claims, an avid collector himself who keeps two Japanese World War II flags as well as a spiked German helmet hanging in his office. ``In all the years I've been involved in the business, I've never seen a down trend.''

George Petersen, owner of National Capital Historical Sales in Springfield, Va., the nation's largest military collectible store, says that Manion may be a bit too rosy in his outlook. For example, Mr. Petersen cites collectors of Soviet military collectibles as big losers once Communism's fall brought a flood of the USSR's collectibles to the market. ``What used to be really rare became very common,'' says Petersen, who knows a dozen collectors who lost considerable money as a result.

Another pitfall is the frequent fakes that appear on the market. Aggressive new capitalists in Russia and the former East Bloc are pumping out duplicate medals by the thousands, and unscrupulous United States and West European firms also frequently try to market reproductions as authentic.

Experts say that reliable dealers are the best way to detect well-crafted reproductions. Manion has a staff of 10 experts to authenticate his goods, in addition to about 40 others who handle the business administration.

Inside these halls of wars past, Manion also stocks posters of smiling Girl Scouts, vintage Barbie dolls and robot toys. The Americana section is an increasingly important offshoot of the auction house. Manion attributes his expansion into other items to his time at General Motors. ``I learned my lessons there; we diversified,'' he says.

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