Military Antiques Collector Finds His Place In History

Ellicott Cityshop Offers War Artifacts

January 20, 1991|By Patrick Hickerson | Patrick Hickerson,Staff writer

Shopkeeper Courtney B. Wilson could be mistaken for a curator.

His small establishment, in a red brick building at Court Avenue and Main Street in Ellicott City, is packed with muskets, sabers, bayonets and bone saws. It takes on the appearance of a museum, with the exception that all of the memorabilia have price tags.

American Military Antiques, which specializes in the collection and appraisal of 18th- and 19th-century military memorabilia, is resplendent with the hardware used by officers and foot soldiers in the several armed conflicts of this nation's history.

Antiques range from the inexpensive -- Civil War carbine slugs priced as low as 75 cents -- to the financially exclusive.

One of the most prized items inthe shop is an 1806 land grant given to Samuel Finley, a major in the Virginia Line of the Continental Army which fought during the American Revolution. The grant is signed by President Thomas Jefferson andSecretary of State -- and future fourth President of the United States -- James Madison . . . . and it's ominously tagged "Price on Request."

On request, Wilson offers that the document can be bought for$5,000.

"I have had some interest," he said.

Other curiositiesinclude a collection of Civil War canteens, which adorns the mantle in the shop. The centerpiece of the group is a red canteen encased inPlexiglas. A tag hanging from the 125-year-old object reads: Conf. Cedar Wood Canteen/inscribed J.P. Burford 28th Tenn. Infantry./$3,200.The price is hundreds of dollars higher than other canteens on the shelf since it is made of wood and inscribed by a Confederate soldier.

Wilson said about half of his shop's inventory comes from estate sales. The rest he buys from other dealers, and sometimes through "off the street" sales, where people drop by his store with their finds.

Wilson attributes his interest in military antiques to being a child of the 1960s and attending the several Civil War centennial commemorations prevalent in the early part of that decade.

"While I wasgrowing up during the centennial, my parents took me around to all the re-enactments of the day." He began his years as a collector at the age of 13 when he received his first authentic Civil War gun, an imported Austrian musket.

Now, Wilson has a number of guns of all types. For the last eleven years the 37-year old antiques dealer -- hisspecialty is arms, accouterment and uniforms -- has managed his shopin Ellicott City. He has appraised military arms for the National Parks Service, the Smithsonian Institution and the Maryland Historical Society. And he claims that his establishment is one of only five Civil War collector shops in the United States.

Hoaxes, the bane of the collecting and selling profession, are quite common. Confederate belt buckles rank, in Wilson's opinion, as the object most often passed off as authentic. Some recently made objects are treated with chemicals to give them that century-and-a-quarter look. "Some are so good,I have to look at them for hours with a magnifying glass," Wilson said. Even after that endeavor, Wilson will then employ some of his friends for second and third opinions.

A good check against being taken is Wilson's many years as a collector.

"Education is a hands-onexperience," he said, "Lots of reading and lots of handling of artifacts. It takes a keen eye."

Wilson's full-time profession as military antique dealer was not his first or second profession after he left college. For ten years, he worked for the National Park Service. Eventually, he became superintendent of the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson. In his last four years with the park service, Wilson opened his first shop near the Ellicott City train museum. Later, he moved the establishment westward, next to the Banker's Galleria, and in April of 1990 the store opened in its present location.

Wilson will be featured this spring in a local production for Maryland Public Television that will be seen during the rebroadcast of public television's successful "The Civil War."

The nine-part series has brought added benefits to Wilson's shop. In recent months, a significant number of new collectors have complimented a stable of veteran collectors. "Since the holidays," Wilson recalls, "there has been a tremendous interest in collecting but these people have no background (in collecting)."

Despite being in such exclusive numbers, he feels a need to cater not just to the veteran collector. "I think to perpetuate the business, I have to be able to supply the beginning collector."

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