Civil War's 150th anniversary fails to pique interest in memorabilia
With five years of 150th anniversary Civil War commemorations coming to an end, longtime artifact collectors and experts expected interest in the pivotal American conflict to peak and sales to surge.
“I've been so disheartened by the whole thing. I like to see young people get behind our past,” said Steve Sylvia, 67, a Civil War relic collector and dealer in Orange, Va., who is publisher of the bimonthly magazine North South Trader's Civil War. “All I saw was a huge fizzle. I don't see where the 150th anniversary had a huge impact on the American public.”
The 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender was last week, and the anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's death by assassination is Wednesday. But five years of events from Charleston, S.C., to Gettysburg to Appomattox, Va., did little to bolster a sluggish market for Civil War artifacts, experts said.
“As far as prices, we didn't get the big surge you would have hoped for with the 150th anniversary,” said historian and collector Eric Wible, 47, of Youngwood, Westmoreland County.
High-end, rare items still command strong prices, said Michael Kraus, a curator at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.
“But the middle and bottom (of the market) have fallen way down,” Kraus, 60, said last week while participating in Appomattox re-enactments. “In the past few years, prices have come back up a bit after being hurt by the economy. But I don't think there is going to be the huge speculative market that there once was.”
The Civil War's 100th anniversary began four years early in 1957 and continued through 1965 as a national celebration. The 150th anniversary started in 2011 and featured mostly staid, commemorative events, Sylvia said.
“There was very little fanfare paid to the 150th,” he said. “This was very low-keyed.”
Sylvia believes a modern focus mainly on the slavery aspect of the Civil War made politicians and others reluctant to get involved with such an uncomfortable subject.
Three-ring Minie balls, a common Union bullet, fetch $3 apiece — the same price as 25 years ago, Sylvia said. Common cavalry swords that sold for $800 a decade ago now can be found for less than $200.
Very high-end items, however, still hold value or have increased. Those include cannons and Confederate officer uniforms, battle flags and swords.
“They continue to inflate, but not as rapidly as in the past,” said Sylvia, who twice sold the battle flag of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in secret sales.
The flag sold again in 2006, that time at auction, for $956,000.
Glen Sullivan started Northern Rebel Images in Carnegie two years ago. He sells Civil War images he has collected since the late 1980s.
Sullivan, 51, said the economy has had more of an impact than the Civil War anniversary.
“Ten years ago, prices could have been higher than they are now,” he said. “It is what it is. I don't think it is something people are going to buy daily. You're either into it or you're not.”
Others worry that the anniversary missed an opportunity to attract new interest in the Civil War.
“We were all clinging to this being our salvation as businessmen,” Sylvia said. “But from a historical perspective, we were doubly saddened.”
Most people at memorabilia shows today are older, Wible said.
“I don't see a lot of new collectors,” he said. “I'm sure they are out there. But are they replacing the old ones as fast as they die off? The interest is kind of dying out.”
Many prices and values might be low, “but that doesn't mean it's worthless,” Kraus said.
People interested in collecting should start slowly, educate themselves and focus on certain areas, he said.
“Just be patient. There is going to be a lot of stuff out there,” Kraus said. “Even though it is losing money theoretically, we continue to collect because we are passionate about it.”
Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or email@example.com.