COLLECTING GERMAN HELMET TIPS
Ten Tips for Collectors:
Investing in German steel helmets is not as easy as it once was, but there are still collectible helmets available in which the value will appreciate nicely in the future. As crazy as it sounds, a German helmet that is original to one person may not be original to another. The starting point is to define what “original” is, and then evaluate each helmet against the defined criteria. By most definitions an original helmet is one that was manufactured anytime between 1916 and 1945, has never had its liner replaced or been altered in any way since WWII and was most likely worn during that period. However, even this simple definition raises questions. Most collectors do agree that most postwar modified helmets should generally be avoided.
Differences Between Original and Postwar Modified Helmets:
In terms of originality, German steel helmets fall into one of several categories. Of course, not everyone agrees which category a given helmet belongs in. The rarest is the unissued, mint conditioned helmet that was never worn during WWI or WWII. Unfortunately, some of the best of the postwar modified helmets can be mistaken for being in mint condition instead of the fabrications that they really are.
Then there is the helmet that shows wartime use but retains its original paint, liner and decals, and was never modified after the war. These are highly sought-after as they are original by any definition, their main attraction being that they are genuine pieces of history that were actually used by combat soldiers.
Helmets that were reissued during the period are another category. These were often given new paint, a new liner and new decals. This reissuing was occasionally performed in the field. The field replacement of liners, repainting and application of new decals was performed in less than ideal conditions, and these helmets sometimes look it. Again, it is unfortunate that this has opened the door for all sorts of postwar modified helmets to be passed off as “reissued”. Postwar modified helmets made up of original parts are the next category. Some of these postwar modifications include the mixing of original shells and liners and the application of period decals. Many collectors do not consider these to be original even though they are made of original parts. It isn’t always easy to know when a particular liner or decal was replaced. This confusion is where the definition of original becomes somewhat muddled.
Probably due to there being so many shells of “German” appearance, these helmets have never been completely reproduced. The final category contains those helmets that are easily recognizable as being modified in the postwar era. The shell and liner may be of Czechoslovakian, German, Norwegian or Spanish origin. The shell may have been made during the 1916-1945 period or after. Some of these have been repainted in camoflage patterns. The shells may have either too many or no holes for the split rivets that held these liners in place on the original German shells. Also, many of these shells ,have vent holes that differ in construction from those on the original German shells. What sets these helmets apart are the obviously fresh paint and decals and the newness of the leather liners. These liners continued to be made by West Germany for their army until about 20 years ago. Except for the use of some plastic parts, these West German helmet liners are very similar to those made in wartime.
References Define Helmet Variations:
There are numerous references that define the different helmets for each branch of service and these provide excellent guidelines. Be aware that they can’t possibly include every variation one may encounter. These references should be studied carefully and used to define the numerous types of German steel helmets.
Each collector should develop his own idea of originality based on careful study of the references and examining the helmets for sale at shows, flea markets, auctions, etc., and then avoid those that don’t fit the criteria in some way. Just looking at them closely provides valuable experience. Using such strict critera may cause one to occasionally pass on helmets that are both original and good collectible investments. On the other hand, it will enable the collector to pass on many more that are not original. With that in mind, 10 tips for collecting German steel helmets are offered here.
Ten Buyer’s Tips:
1. Get a copy of Ludwig Baer’s book The History of the German Steel Helmet 1916-1945. This 448-page masterpiece contains photos and descriptions of every basic type and numerous varieties of both combat and non-combat helmets. It is very well researched and is the most comprehensive reference available by far. There is much original German source material about the development of and various orders pertaining to these helmets. Although out of print again, a copy is worth its price to a true collector for the quality and quantity of information it contains.
2. Don’t let the chance to buy a rare helmet affect the judging of authenticity. The rarer a helmet is, the greater the chance of its being a postwar modification. A good rule of thumb to avoid being taken advantage of is not to buy any helmet that raises even one “red flag”.
3. Start by collecting basic helmets. Single decal Army and Luftwaffe helmets are fairly common and are less likely to be reproduced than double decal SS helmets. Remember that sometimes silver Army decals oxidize and turn gold over time, and can easily be mistaken for a more expensive naval Kriegsmarine helmet. Chemicals and heat can be used to artificially age leather liners and the shells.
4. The wear of the shell should match the wear of the liner. Be leery of all replaced liners, even if the replacement appears to have been done during the period. Also, look at the rivets that attach the shell to the liner. They should be flat against the liner band. If the rivets show evidence of being bent back and forth, consider buying a different helmet. This is true for German steel helmets from both WWI and WWII.
5. Decals should show an even, aged look and should fit tightly against the paint. Reproduction decals are usually printed on plastic, and this allows them to be identified by touch. A bubbled appearance may suggest that the shell and decal were treated with heat to simulate aging. A rubbed appearance is another good indicator of postwar application. The rubbing is done to force the decal to fit as snugly as possible. The regulation decal application procedure consisted of several steps and left very little margin for error. One indication of an original decal is “spidering,” the formation of thin cracks over the surface of the decal due to age. Sometimes a thin coat of lacquer was applied over the decals to protect them. This can be detected by the small amount that usually overlaps the area right around the decal. Over 60 plus years, lacquered decals tend to appear darker than the unlacquered ones. This may also be due to the particular brand of lacquer that was used.
6. The liner should fit correctly in the shell. Although all German steel helmet liners are size adjustable, the liners were made in different sizes to fit in the different sized shells. Postwar switching of liners can sometimes be detected by a poor fitting liner that is either too large or too small for the shell it is sitting in. Presumably the Germans would not normally have made this mistake. Also, the liner band should conform perfectly to the inner shell of the helmet. There should be only a very small even gap between the liner bands and the inner shell. Also, watch out for those darker colored, reddish-brown Norwegian replacement liners. The larger sized ink stamped size marking of the Norwegian liners is another characteristic of these replacements. These liners were placed into German helmets that were left behind in WWII and then used during the cold war era. Real militaria they are, but German they are not.
7. Be extremely careful of SS helmets. The rarer the helmet, the greater the chance that some enterprising individual will attempt to reproduce it in some way. Original decals had a metallic luster that is quite striking when seen in direct sunlight. Many no-decal M-42 helmets are being modified with the application of original SS decals. This can turn a $400 helmet into a helmet worth $4,000 or more. SS helmets should be avoided until a collector has sufficient experience or really trusts his source.
8. Be extremely careful of camouflage helmets from the Second World War. Camouflage paint schemes varied during WWII. Today, there are many postwar-created camouflage helmets in the market, some selling for over $1500. If the paint appears to be fresh and has been applied over old rust, it is probably a recently done fake. Rust often forms in areas where the original paint has been scratched off the shell. The older the rust, the darker its color. There should be flaking to the finish and wear to the top of the shell, as helmets were usually placed upside down on the ground during rest periods to keep dirt, mud and other debris out of the liner. Many of the camouflage helmets seen today do not display this wear on the top. Keep looking until you find one that does.
9. Get a guarantee, at least for the length of the show, or 3-7 days if the purchase is made by mail or directly from another collector. This seems to be the standard accepted practice these days and should not pose a problem. Soliciting the opinions of other collectors or a knowledgeable friend is also a good thing to do. Lifetime and one year guarantees are not offered as often as they once were. So you must learn to evaluate a prospective purchase before buying it or shortly thereafter instead of relying on the willingness of the dealer to give a refund at some future date.
10. The experienced collector knows that it is always best to buy the helmet in the best possible condition. Spending a few extra dollars now will payoff in the long run. This fact of the collector’s life applies well to helmets, and is worth keeping in mind. There is a lot to know, but the fascination with these helmets increases as you learn more about them. They’re fun to collect and as investments go, they are a lot more predictable than the stock market. So first get educated and then get started on your own collection.