Back in 2002 the prices on submarine insignia went crazy. In reaction to this, I posted this note on my old web site. It still has value and has been included below. 14 years later, not much in my mind has changed. The rare badges remain rare. But buyer beware on some of the stuff out there. A few of the dealers who I found disreputable are long gone, retired or passed on to the militaria dealerships in the sky.
October 25, 2002
It is time for some education on submarine badges. While it is no skin off my back, I have noticed a lot of people pay exorbitant prices for submarine badges on ebay that were, in my humble opinion, not necessary. Here are some recent examples:
- $610 for a PRC submarine badge that is not official and not that old. It is worth maybe $25 to a maximum of $50.
- $202.50 for an Egyptian “YTY” badge; these are probably unofficial, are likely fakes and usually go for $35 to $50 (or maybe a few shekels more, but certainly not over $200).
- A small battle unit midget sub WWII German badge of probable fake origin was sold for $360.99.
One thing I have learned in all my years of badge collecting is that most of these badges are not unique. Yes, there are only a couple of 1909 Czarist Russian badges known to still be around. The 1931 Spanish submarine badge with an anchor over a flat red stone and mural (flat) crown is known to be in one guy’s collection (not in Pritchard’s book). But Egypt and the PRC? Come on!
Let’s start with current stuff. Any badge still being produced and in circulation should not cost very much. Most U.S. military insignia (submarines or otherwise) cost between $5 to $10 for a metal badge. Cloth U.S. badges run from $1 to $2 and maybe $4 to $5 for a very few commercial versions. So even if the cost to manufacture and sell was 100% more overseas, no new badge is worth more than $20. It is low cost metal and a little labor once the dies are paid for. Dies run $500 (maybe up to $1000 for more intricate badges), so to amortize the cost of the die does not take long unless you make a die and produce only 50 pieces. Even then, $25 a pop gets you in. Again, some examples are warranted.
- I buy Israeli badges for $4-7 for mess dress and full size. That’s it. Maybe $10-15 for short production runs of old style badges, but not much otherwise.
- Spanish and Portuguese badges can be had for $8 to $12. I just got some this week.
- Japanese new badges cost less than $10 U.S. in Japan. A lot less.
- In Italy, new Italian badges probably go for under $5 for the small ones and not much more for the cheaply made large silver enlisted.
- Polish badges get out of Poland to dealers charging $8 to $15 a badge for the regulation ones (the ones that look like they were stamped out of thick old beer cans).
I could go on and on, but hopefully you are starting to get the picture (if it wasn’t clear before). This stuff is kind of unique but not rare. You may ask how can I get stuff like this so inexpensively. Easy. Patience and research. The middle man is making big bucks on these things. Every reseller marks them up 100%, plus or minus 50%. So if two guys handled that $10 badge it is now a $40 badge. Be patient, be resourceful and find the source, not the ump-teenth level middleman. You can network with other collectors. 99.9% of the time you have nothing going on, so converse with them on other things. Most of them have the same anal-retentive obsession to collect, so maybe you’ll have lots to talk about.
Several of my badges I got for free or nearly so. Free badges? Sure. Early in my collecting career I used to write nice letters to another country’s Naval attaché in Washington. The address to all embassies is on this web site. Brazil was free (twice). I sent the guys a US badge in thanks. India was free. Letter from Secretary made it seem like they had a drawer full so I sent a note but no badge in thanks. A Pakistan badge was free but I had to cover postage from Pakistan to the US Embassy and then to me. For Chile I had to pay $10 to cover costs. Sure, I had to take time to write a letter and wait. I tried the same tact with our US Naval attachés overseas. I got badges from Bulgaria and many other countries. Sure, I had written many letters and most were ignored. I guess if you are a Gen X-er with no patience, in need of instant gratification and the type to say, “I could be making money at $150 an hour instead of writing letters,” you can afford to pay $600 for a badge. But if that is the case, why the hell collect submarine badges? Collect vintage cars or something more appropriate to your perceived status in life.
Rarer items obviously go for more. Good WWII stuff was going for $100 to $200 tops ten years ago. With easy access via the internet and places like ebay, everything is talked about as being rare. Demand increased without much increase in supply. Prices jumped. Now most WWII stuff is out of site. And, sadly, much of the WWII stuff is from after the war. N.S. Meyer dies today are still turning out gold and silver badges from the WWII die (remember that silver badges for enlisted began in the 1950’s, so they were not around in WWII). If your pay over $25, you’ve been ripped off. A friend of mine in Massachusetts had the Robbins dolphins done up a few years ago in silver and silver with gold plate (note: Robbins and Blackington are the same exact badges). His cost plus a very nominal markup had them selling at $25 a piece like hotcakes. So what’s the difference between that and the high cost dealers? The price. Middlemen mark them up big time.
More examples? It is almost impossible to tell Schwerin Berlin WWII Germans made in the early 1970’s from those made in the 1940’s. If the badge was not owned and worn by a U-Boat man, the only difference is how long it stayed in someone’s display case. Yes, there are some made in the 1940’s that make them more special because of the era they were made, but I defy you to tell the difference. All you can go by is if you get them directly from an estate (or a living veteran) and they know that the guy didn’t replenish his dresser top jewelry box for reunions. Otherwise, be very wary. Fakes probably outnumber originals 100 to 1, and maybe even 10,000 to 1. Even reputable dealers often don’t know for sure what is real; they can and do get ripped off, too. There were almost a dozen Berlin and German made types of U-Boat badges from jewelers. Couple that with French made and you have a plethora of die sources. And then there are the basement casters. They make a mold of the real badge and then cast copies. A little artificial aging and voila! The $600 WWII badge.
An old Navy friend of mine recently wrote with shame that he had just paid $50 for a US combat patrol badge, not realizing they still carry them at the U.S. uniform shops (and if they don’t, Hillborn-Hamburger and Vanguard will make more for them). Don’t be fooled. Don’t overpay. Be smart. Ask around. The old Serbo-Croatian Kingdom sub badge is a rarity. But only a half dozen to a dozen badges are really rare. And those of moderate rarity are often fakes. And those purported to be rare but made since the 1950’s or 1960’s are not rare. Buyer beware really applies with antiques and militaria. Badges claimed to be old that aren’t are sold every day on ebay by both knowing and unknowing souls.
I spoke with Bill Crosby last night after I wrote the beginnings of this note. We came up with 6 badges that are probably worth $600 or more. That’s it. They are:
- 1909 Imperial Russian badge
- Kingdom of Serbs and Croats badge
- An Issued Nazi Diamond badge (not the street versions)
- Original Spanish badge
- Original Siamese badge
- Original Turkish badge
Any other badge I would say is worth less than $200 to $300 except for maybe an extreme case here and there. To have guys like Otto Krechmer’s or Eugene Fluckey’s original sub qual badge might be a pricey endeavor, but you get my point by now I hope. And if you collect expensive badges and those names are not familiar to you, you probably ought not collect expensive badges.
Yes, some of what I wrote could be construed to be a bit snotty. It is not intended that way. The world as I see it certainly is my opinion and I would fight to the death to protect your right to disagree with me. But the reality of this is that collecting is supposed to be fun, not a quest to see who can pay more for something that is not worth it. You can bid your brains out on a badge you have to have now. Or wait 6 months or even a year or two and find out better ways to get them. I enjoy the hunt more than the actual ownership. It’s like sex. It’s such a task getting there and finally doing it, but once it’s over it’s anti-climactic. Badges are same way. The dig to find the gems or good buys can be quite rewarding. And it will leave you lots of money to throw away on women and other things that can be an even bigger waste of money. Part of the fun in collecting is the hunt. The hunt can be expensive but it only has to be if you are impatient or going after one of those truly unique dozen badges. Otherwise, be patient, have fun, meet plenty of interesting people and have a great time with the hunt and not just the badge.
Commander, United States Navy (Retired)
Submarine badge collecting can and should be fun. There are some badges that are rare and almost priceless, but the vast majority can be had for a reasonable price.