In reality, my countless trips to antique shops, flea markets, and yard sales over the past 10 years have yielded nothing of significance, other than a horse hair-filled child's football I purchased from a store 5 blocks from my home. By my count, approximately 99% of my collection has been purchased from auction houses, EBay, dealers and fellow collectors. Nary a one has been discovered beneath a root ball, in a trunk, or within a sale bin.
In today's Internet-dominated world, sellers have direct access to the universe of EBay collectors that are ever-waiting to pounce with their "Buy-it-Now" offers and snipe bids. An advanced collection requires an oversized wallet. This reality of the state of the hobby can, and has, led to disillusionment. A longtime collector recently lamented what he saw as the erosion of "collecting on the most basic of levels, for the pure joy of the adventure."
"I was a high school social studies teacher for over thirty years, but during most of that time I chased antiques during my “mandatory summer unemployment season.” That started about forty years ago as I retired from teaching in 2000. Although I built a house out of recycled stuff like flooring made of old bowling alley lanes, recycled barn beams, backbars, leaded glass windows and such, as I’ve aged, my aching back has me focusing now more on historic ephemera and smalls that are more easily transportable.
Every year we meet in Florida three other couples with whom I used to teach, and my wife and I always take a couple of extra days on the drive so we can shop our way south. We always make it a point to hit one particular shop because it’s loaded with the kinds of stuff I like. But as shops go, I find it to be pretty pricey and I really don’t hope to find anything there that I can resell as much as I hope to maybe find stuff for my own varied collections. In part because of their pricing, I regard the dealers to be pretty knowledgeable as I’ve never found anything previously that I thought was a “bargain basement” steal.
But this past spring when I was looking in one of their cases, I spied the “Pneumatic.” Of course, I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to know that was the name of it, but I appreciated that it was an early helmet. They were having a 20% off sale, so my price turned out to be $52! The “Chicago” was also in the same case, but it was priced over $100. After asking why it was priced so much more considering that it was in about as bad of condition as the other with an almost completely missing ear guard, the shop owner, who happened to own the case where these were located, said it was a very scarce design. But he said I could have it for $75. As I was paying, they actually gave me an internet printout which identified the second one as being “very rare.”
Antique Football Helmets
Obviously the printout wasn’t from your site as it didn’t have any pricing with it, just the characterization that it was very rare. Certainly I didn’t have any real insights as to just what I had, so I didn’t have the presence of mind to inquire about where they got them or to seek any provenance regarding them. I’m sure you’ve already done the math; I paid $127 for the two. I’d have maybe gone as much as $200 if I’d had to do so; but with my knowledge base, I was just speculating. My gut feeling was that I wouldn’t have been surprised if they might go for as much as $1,000 IF I could find the right guy on ebay, but that was just my optimistic hope.
When we arrived at our Florida cottage, the other three couples always ask my wife and I to have “show and tell” regarding what we’ve picked up on the way down. Two of the other guys were long time high school football coaches (I coached wrestling), and they found the helmets “interesting” but certainly didn’t have any more (actually less) expertise regarding them than I did.
Once we returned to Indiana I tried to do a little more research on them, but I wasn’t lucky enough to blunder into your magnificent website. So I listed them, still without knowing exactly to what “very rare” would translate in terms of dollars and cents. And I presumed that condition would be an issue as both of them were missing a significant part of one ear. Shortly after the listing appeared one guy asked me about “Buy It Now.” And if I’m remembering correctly, I replied something “wild and crazy” like $3,000 for the pair, but I’d only do that if they had no bids as I “wouldn’t ever sell them out from under anyone once the bidding began.” That prompted him to begin the bidding on one and they were off and running. After that I had others ask about “Buy It Now,” but I still wouldn’t sell one or both out from under anyone, even as the offer went to $5,000 for the pair, which was certainly beyond my wildest dreams.
When the closing bell frenzy finally concluded, the Chicago brought $5,101 and the Pneumatic $4,716. Even with ebay taking over $1,000 in commissions and PayPal fees, it was still a nifty return on my $127! I’ve said before that ebay has made a lot of money for people who sometimes aren’t very smart … and I’m proud to count myself as one of them! (Although I do think that ebay’s getting $1,000 for the effort they put forth was far too much, that’s another story.) In any case, that’s the account. Next spring when we head south, we’ll certainly stop at the same shop. IF they remember the sale, I’ll casually ask if they have any recollection as to how and where they got those old helmets.
I guess the moral to the story is that “knowledge is power.” Had I, or that shop owner, found your website along the way, I feel sure they’d have brought even more. But as it was, at least your readers will come away enriched with the knowledge that buried treasure still exists. May their own hunts be as lucky!
Upon reading the story above, most people would be amazed by the seller's good-fortune and fabulous return on investment. Others may be dismayed that these rare pieces were introduced into a marketplace that once again priced them well beyond their means. For me, the story is a reminder that at its heart, collecting is about the thrill of discovery and the "pure joy of the adventure." Buried treasure does still exist, but the true destination of our quest of discovery might have been where we started all along. I've certainly enjoyed reconnecting with that introverted kid on the banks of Aquia Creek, hoping he'll share with me what he's squirreled away in that box of Hav-A-Tampa Jewels.
Against this backdrop an unknown seller sold two ultra-rare football head harnesses on EBay in May. In fact, his Pneumatic Head Harness and Chicago Head Harness rank as the #2 and #3 rarest football helmets in our Top 10 Rarest Head Harness Style Rankings. After contacting the seller to ask permission to use his photos in an Artifact of the Month story, I learned that he had randomly discovered both helmets in an antique shop and purchased them on a hunch that they may have value. I decided to share the story in his own words in hopes that it may serve as a reminder of the "pure joy of the adventure" that created the collector in each of us.