Laurent Mirouze was eight and playing with lead soldiers when his neighbour, a WWI artilleryman, gave him his helmet and regaled him with grim, yet exciting tales of trench warfare.

What's hot, what's not

Before you start collecting, take note:

What’s hot: Experimental helmets commissioned by the US military; American and German helmets painted with camouflage; groupings of personal items of soldiers and sailors from famous units, such as US Marines who fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood in France.

What’s not: Items that were mass-produced and are still readily available, such as doughboy uniforms with no insignia or very common insignias, and equipment like grenade vests and McClellan saddles.

The stories sparked the imagination of the young French boy, along with a life-long passion for the military. Mirouze went on to become a paratrooper in the 9e Regiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes and an avid collector of WWI memorabilia.

Mirouze, now 50 and a furniture manufacturer in Blois, France, has since amassed a collection of some 300 items worth approximately $500,000.  The focus of his collection is uniforms and headgear — primarily French, and some German and English — from 1914, the first year of the war.

He’s seen the value of his collection soar by 30% over the past year, as collectors are reinvigorated by the centennial commemoration of the start of the war, which began after Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on 28 June, 1914. That killing led to the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia and prompted a worldwide conflagration.

While many collectors snap up guns, badges, even aircraft parts, Mirouze is attracted to apparel from about 1914, since it represents a time when French and Germans dressed in colourful prewar uniforms.  “The fighting was like they used to fight in the 19th century, cavalry fights, just before trenches,” he said.

Who collects, and why?

Some, though not all, WWI memorabilia collectors are current or former members of the military. They tend to be men, often baby boomers, who were bitten by the collecting bug at an early age.

Enthusiasts tend to collect items from their own history, said Mirouze, who has also written books on WWI collectibles.

Collections vary widely. Memorabilia is gathered from many of the 36 countries on six continents that waged the war, said Doran Cart, senior curator of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. It includes uniforms; helmets; medals; insignias; weapons; equipment such as backpacks, mess kits and gas masks; flags; posters; photos; books from the period and contemporary books about the period; and home front items such as ration coupons, games played by families of soldiers and documents from civilian support organisations like the American Red Cross.

There is no rule of thumb about the value of these items, experts say. It's all about the rarity or individual characteristics of each object, such as their place in the war, or historical or sentimental significance. For instance, a rare item from a famous battle will probably be worth more than a common object from a lesser-known, or minor skirmish. Some Russian and Balkan items, as well as some American and German items, can be worth a small fortune, depending on scarcity and demand, while other American and German items manufactured in large quantities are worth little.

The value of WWI militaria rose 10% on average annually until the most recent recession, estimates Scott Kraska, owner of Bay State Militaria and Antiques in Leominster, Massachusetts. He said growth in value has been flat in the past five or six years, but predicted values will once again rise by 5% to 10% annually when the economy strengthens and enthusiasts have more disposable income.

Most coveted

In-demand collectibles include experimental helmets commissioned by the US military, and American and German helmets painted with camouflage, said Jeff Shrader, owner of Advance Guard Militaria in Burfordville, Missouri, and a militaria appraiser on the US television program “Antiques Roadshow.”

Groupings of personal items of soldiers and sailors from famous units, such as US Marines who fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood in France, are also popular, according to Kraska.

Items expected to appreciate longer term include fabric from airplanes painted with a unit insignia, available for $10,000 to $12,000, said Shrader.  Kraska expects groupings of soldiers’ possessions, which today can go for as much as $20,000 each, also will greatly increase in value.  “Certain items are the equivalent of blue-chip stocks,” he said.

There is one particularly coveted class of collectables, Mirouze noted.  “Everyone from all over the world also collects German things,” he said. “The Germans were a strong army, very tough, the bad guys.”

Where to look

Curating your own personal collection within certain parameters will allow you to zero in on a particular area of interest. It may also help your collection grow in value over time.

“I urge collectors to pick a focus,” said John Adams-Graf, editor-in-chief of Military Trader and Military Vehicles and collector of items related to the American Tank Corps.  “There’s a maturation process in collecting.  People begin as gatherers and then focus.  Otherwise, they’ll be spending a lot of money collecting piles of items.”

Reputable dealers are the best place to find WWI memorabilia, experts say, and most do business online.  In the US, Advance Guard Militaria, Hayes Otoupalik Militaria and Bay State Militaria are considered good sources. In Europe, look to dealers like Le Poilu in Paris and Regimentals in Hertfordshire, England.  Auction houses including Heritage, Cowan’s and Rock Island, also American, and Hermann Historica, in Munich, sell memorabilia.  Experts caution about buying items on eBay, since it is more difficult to determine whether items or counterfeit or genuine.  Before purchasing online, buyers are urged to research the item and the seller.

“If you deal with someone who won’t give you a lifetime guarantee, you shouldn’t buy from them,” warns Kraska.

One way to get up to speed on WWI militaria is to attend collectors’ fairs, including the Ohio Valley Military Society’s Show of Shows, MAX in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, and Ciney Expo in Belgium.

There are also specialist collectors’ groups, such as the Association of American Military Uniform Collectors, and online forums and discussion groups, such as the Long, Long Trail, US Militaria and the Great War Forum.

The bottom line

Some collectors say they’ve seen little change in the value of WWI items recently, but Mirouze said sought-after items from the period are scarce.

“You don’t find anything on the market at the moment because of the centennial,” he said. “Everybody wants to collect First World War stuff.”

Media coverage of the centennial may have an impact on the value of items globally, said John Conway, a Kansas City, Missouri-based appraiser of militaria, particularly if it sparks a surge of interest in that period of history.

Regardless of investment value, the greatest pleasure associated with collecting WWI memorabilia is what collector and dealer Hayes Otoupalik, calls “the learning curve about history”. “ To have the 3D items of history in your hands is magical, to me the best enjoyment of all,”  he said.