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!