Want some bang for your buck? Consider collecting patriotic memorabilia. Still largely affordable, red, white and blue collectibles are popping up at flea markets, antiques shops and ephemera shows from sea to shining sea. Buying and selling items picturing or shaped like Uncle Sam, "Lady Liberty," the stars and stripes, Independence Hall, American eagles, or the Liberty Bell has become a national pastime.
Although it takes over a million George Washington dollars to buy the quintessential Fourth of July memento, an original July 1776 broadside of the Declaration of Independence from John Dunlap's printing press in Philadelphia, there's a booming business in lower-cost patriotic kitsch. Yankee Doodle Dandies can wave grand old 48-star cotton or gauze flags, which generally cost 50 cents and up, or spice up their Fourth of July barbecues with strings of 1920s or '30s red, white and blue accordion-fold paper party lanterns ($5 to $20 each).
"Patriotism comes in cycles, usually lasting around 20 years," observed one star-spangled New York collector who even decorates his Christmas tree with late 19th- and early 20th-century American flags, Uncle Sam figures, and red, white and blue lights. "We've been in a patriotic cycle since around the beginning of the first Reagan Administration," he added.
"When the national ego is flying high, people want to get into this stuff," commented dealer Shannon Riggs. During the Gulf war, he sold vintage stars and stripes as fast as he could find them. In Mr. Riggs' holiday collectibles and ephemera booth at the South Pointe Antiques mall, Route 272 and Denver Road, Adamstown, Pa. 19501, (215) 484-1026, collectors have a lot of patriotic Americana to choose from. Among his usual offerings are: rolls of old, heavy cheesecloth, red, white and blue bunting, 12 feet long by about 4 feet wide (around $45); 1950s plastic souvenirs ranging from $1 Liberty Bells to $50 Uncle Sam wind-up clocks; early 20th-century patriotic picture postcards priced $1 to $10 each (more greeting cards used to be sent around the Fourth of July than at Christmas); patriotic sheet music (most under $10 each); colorful turn-of-this-century lithographed calendars depicting Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty or American flags, costing several hundred dollars each; and Uncle Sam dolls priced about $200 for 1950s cloth versions in good condition to $2,000 for fine early 20th-century German bisque ones.
"I still can find German-made lithographed tin patriotic candy containers at flea markets," Mr. Riggs said, "but when I get a good one, it sells immediately." He recently sold for $850 a circa 1920 example depicting Uncle Sam holding a turkey. "I'm not sure if the Germans were confusing holidays, or if this was their way of getting back at Americans after our victory in World War I," he mused.
When patriotic items cross over into other collecting fields, prices can skyrocket. For example, bank and toy collectors also pledge allegiance to circa 1886 cast-iron Uncle Sam mechanical banks by Shepard Hardware Co., of Buffalo, N.Y., which can fetch $600 to $5,000 each depending on condition. Stella Rubin, a Maryland folk art dealer based in Potomac, is offering for $10,500 a quilt from 1942 decorated with an American eagle, crossed flags waving in a breeze, and the phrase "United States of America."
Fine quality patriotic advertising collectibles are major attention-getters. Among the hottest items: one of only 12 known circa-1910 Campbell Soup Co. tin advertising signs with soup can images forming a 32-star flag. "The Campbell's Soup sign was years ahead of its time; it was Pop Art," observed advertising art dealer Allan Katz, of Woodbridge, Conn. "The company created an uproar by using the American flag to sell soup, so the sign disappeared like the dinosaurs." One in pristine condition brought $93,000 at a Maine auction in 1990. (Condition appears to be key: another, rather worn, recently failed to find a buyer at auction, according to Mr. Katz.)
While rarity, condition and age affect the cost of much memorabilia, collectors and dealers unanimously agree that it's the quality of the patriotic image that ultimately determines price. Mr. Katz's brightly colored circa 1904 tin "Jas. E. Pepper Whiskey" sign lithographed by Meek and Beach Co. of Coshocton, Ohio, featuring an early image of Miss Liberty grasping an American flag draping an oversized whiskey bottle, with Colonial militiamen in the foreground and a working factory in the rear, is worth over $25,000. "It goes beyond mere advertising," Mr. Katz opined.
To some, "old glory" is the ultimate patriotic image. "I have a very visceral reaction to the flatness of the design of the American flag. I've never owned anything with furled or wavy flags on it," said folk art dealer Susan Parrish, 390 Bleecker St., New York, N.Y. 10014 (212) 645-5020, who's been mounting red, white and blue displays each July since she began her business 20 years ago in Santa Barbara, Calif. Though she can't make the summer splash she used to because high quality patriotic folk art is increasingly difficult to find, Ms. Parrish's current offerings include a circa 1870 cotton and wood stars and stripes parasol ($750); a 20th-century cotton quilt top appliqued with a shield, "God Bless America" and "Home Sweet Home" ($2,800); and a circa 1910 painted-foil-behind-glass Parcheesi game board with a reverse-painted American flag in its center ($650).
Emery Goff, a dealer in Litchfield, Maine, agrees that red, white and blue collectibles are becoming scarcer. She spends a full year searching for parade-stopping patriotic memorabilia to sell each June. "I deal in patriotic things because I like them. They're fun, distinctive, and they sell," she said. "One Midwest client made curtains out of the rolls of bunting I sold," said Ms. Goff, who this year advertised a 1908 tin "Yankee Doodle" drum decorated with eagles and flags ($185) and a large 20th-century wood Uncle Sam mailbox stand ($285).
Perhaps the most-wanted patriotic collectible is an original World War I vintage U.S. Army "I Want You" recruiting poster, the familiar unsmiling self-portrait of famed illustrator James Montgomery Flagg outfitted as Uncle Sam, his raised index finger pointing directly at the viewer. Although 5.5 million copies were made, many were scrapped in paper drives during World War II, and those that survive rarely are found in good condition, according to vintage poster dealer George Theofiles. A well-preserved original Flagg poster can fetch around $1,500, said Mr. Theofiles, whose gallery, called "The Miscellaneous Man," is located in a town where Uncle Sam would feel at home: New Freedom, Pa.
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