Dating tips for those too shy to ask

Many photos one can get hold on have no dates or other information that gives an idea about when or where they were taken. Most of the less expensive ones are from 1939 to 1941, mostly taken in France and the Soviet Union, or during training before or during the first years of the war. On auction sites like eBay, they are often sold in lots of half a dozen to several hundred. Most are depicting Heer (Army), but a sizeable part are Luftwaffe subjects and some Reichsarbeitsdienst thrown in. The really attractive photos, with tanks, airplanes, Fallschirmjäger, Waffen-SS, etc, are sold separately and at much higher prices.

Identifying and dating photos can make your collection more interesting and sometimes even more valuable, at least in your own eyes. The photo above isn’t that expensive. It’s 9×14 cms, and thus slightly larger than most photos from the period. It might be worth a couple of Euros or US dollars at most if bought separately. What it makes it interesting, though, is that it describes a step in the story of the Heer. It is most likely taken during exercises back in Germany. The soldiers don’t wear the Y-straps (combat suspenders) which were introduced in April 1939, but not in common use until late in 1940, after the campaign in the West. This narrows down the period of the photo, but not enough, and it could still be from, say, 1938 or 1941.

Another pointer is the decals on the helmets. The national tricolor decal was discontinued in early 1940. Still, with plenty of M1935 double-decal helmets around, the photo could be of a later date, but together with the lack of Y-straps, it makes it more likely that the photo was taken before 1941. Now, some of the soldiers carry an interesting piece of equipment that gives yet another clue. Three guys in the center-left part of the photo carry the long magazine pouches for the MG 26(t), which was the German designation for the Czech ZB vz. 26 light machinegun. 31,200 ZB vz. 26 MGs were captured when Nazi Germany occupied the Czech regions Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. Now, this narrows down the window of the photo, setting the earliest date at the spring of 1939.

A look at the trees in the background shows them to be without leaves. This makes me think that the photo was taken in either the fall of 1939, or the spring of 1940 at the latest. It’s my guess that the soldiers in the photo belong to one of the nine infantry divisions raised in the fall of 1939, and which were issued some captured Czech equipment. That would fit in with the estimate above, and make it more likely that the photo was taken in March or April, 1940. Most of those divisions saw action in France in May and June that year. So there we have it: I’m fairly certain that it was taken during those two months.

To make an analysis and identification like this demands knowledge of uniforms, medals and insignia, weaponry, history, and so on. Good reference literature and reliable Internet sites are needed, and being a member of discussion groups and forums with knowledge of the subject at hand can be a great resource, too. It’s a learning process, so don’t expect to get everything right from the start, or that it’s even possible to get that much information from a photo. As long as you derive enjoyment from it, you are doing it right!

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Buyer beware

The photo in the top row is one that I bought some years ago. An eBay seller offered several intersting photos, and I won a few auctions. The seller had great feedback from many hundreds of auctions. It was when I returned some weeks later and saw some of the same photos offered again that I got suspicious… When the photo of the Fallschirm-Panzer-Division 1. ‘Hermann Göring’ Panzergrenadiers turned out to be a poor reproduction of the photo in the bottom row, I got seriously annoyed. I contacted the seller, returned the photos and got my money back.

The demand for interesting photos of sought-after subjects like tanks, aircraft, paratroopers, Waffen-SS troops, famous soldiers, etc, feeds a cottage industry of counterfeiters and scam artists. Every week, they rake in thousands of Euros and Dollars in online auctions, preying on unwary collectors. So how can you avoid getting fooled?

To begin with, it helps to be familiar with authentic photos. That makes it easier to tell real from fake. Still, that won’t protect you. The fakers can make authentic-looking photos by using genuine negatives and photo paper with known brand names on the back, like Agfa. You buy a real photo, but it’s new and not unique, as it is probably sold in several copies over a period of time.

One scam I’ve spotted is fake albums. The seller has taken a real, empty album and mounted newly made copies of photos in it, perhaps mixing them with some vintage photos. If one compares real, period albums with newly-assembled fakes, one can spot some differences. The real albums tend to contain more everyday photos, like family, soldier friends, ordinary military subjects, portraits of the soldier whom the album once belonged to, and so on. There are usually notes under the photos, with places, names, dates… It’s not uncommon for some photos to be missing, either removed by a previous owner, or by a seller expecting to get more for a few single photos of for example tanks (and still selling the plundered album at a profit), than for the entire album.

A newly-assembled album looks too clean. There are many attractive photos, but there’s no story being told – no notes, no photos of army buddies. It gives a disjointed impression. I recently saw one such album being offered, with some 170 photos from the fighting in France, and then the Soviet Union. Just photos of tanks, airplane wrecks, 8,8 cm guns, and not much else. At first glance, it looked great, but it was too tidy, with no notes or everyday photos. The seller might have picked the best photos as examples, but I got the impression that it wasn’t the genuine article. It sold for over 330 Euros…

The danger with online auctions is that one cannot inspect the items on sale in person. The buyer has to go by his gut feeling. Do not buy from sellers who don’t have a return policy. Start with buying cheaper photos and develop a feel for what they look like and how they are to the touch. If something appears to be too good to be true, it probably is. Collecting old military photos is a fun and rewarding hobby, but exercise care. The old Romans said “caveat emptor” – buyer beware!