This was written by one of our Moderators here, and we felt it should be added to the forum.
Almost everyday we get a family member that comes on the US Militaria Forum, because they have done some internet research on a family members name, and something shows up on a internet search to item(s) posted here. Some handle it politely and ask questions about how a member received such item(s), while others come in with gun's blazing claiming the item is stolen. Below is a great example of how situations like this can be handled properly.
You were doing an internet search for your relative, and found that their hat, helmet, uniform, medals, sword, etc. is now in the hands of a private collector. How could this have happened! You're angry and disappointed that the items ever got out of family custody in the first place, and now you want the current owner to repatriate them to you. What do you do?
Through the magic of modern technology, this happens quite often. Over the years I have observed that most productive interactions between family members and collectors have a lot of elements in common. Similarly, I have also seen that most non-productive interactions between these two groups have a lot of things in common as well. In the interest of seeing family members have the most positive, productive resolution possible in their particular situation, I made a few notes that might help. Even though you may disagree, take a look through these points and consider each before you reach out to the collector or dealer who has the item(s) you are seeking.
It should go without saying that a friendly, non-adversarial approach is your best bet. Unfortunately, most people seem to take the exact opposite route. This above all else usually guarantees an unhappy resolution for the family member. Though you may perceive the current custodian of the item(s) to be your adversary, remember that if not for this collector or dealer (and likely several others before them in the chain of custody), the item may well have been discarded and lost forever. The fact that these items have value and there is a collector market for them is the safety net which has led to their preservation. If you can embrace that concept, there's hope for you on your quest. If not.. well, it's pretty much doomed before it even starts.
Here are a few common ideas advanced by family members that you will want to avoid:
1) There is NO WAY this would ever have left the family unless it was stolen.
There are some odd instances when items truly were stolen. If a police report was filed at the time of the theft, and the item in question was legitimately stolen, then solving the situation is a simple matter. Present the new custodian with a copy of the police report, and most of the time little else will need to be done to get the item back in family hands. No police report? Well, that's another matter.
This is the #1 most common accusation, though rarely is it even remotely factual. The assumption is - "If this isn't still with the family, then it was stolen, and thus you MUST give it back." Usually the story goes that the items fell into the custody of one relative, who discarded them against the wishes or without the knowledge of other family members who might have decided differently. That's not 'stolen' - it's a family squabble.
The truth is there are an infinite number of ways that items leave family custody. Most often, they are intentionally sold, given away, or simply discarded by a family member who had custody of them. Though it may mean the world to you, selling it for $10 at a garage sale may have been viewed as a great victory for one of your relatives. You would also be amazed by how many people with absolutely no interest in history simply throw such things in the garbage. The first Civil War sword I ever owned was a Christmas present from my father, who's co-worker approached him one day to ask if he thought it would be "legal" to put a dangerous weapon in the garbage. It was a Model 1840 saber that had belonged to his great-grandfather who served in a Kansas Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War.. but he wanted it out of the house due to his own extremist anti-military political views. Dad offered to help dispose of the sword, and a few months later I had the greatest Christmas ever. That sword is still one of my prized possessions.
In spite of any real or imagined misunderstandings or back-stabbing among family members, the estate executor, an auction company, the trash pick-up service, etc., if there is nothing illegal about the manner in which the current owner purchased the item, then it belongs to them. Throwing around words like "stolen" and "thief" may serve to make you feel more emboldened about your position in the argument, but this only serves to alienate the current owner and make them much LESS likely to reach an agreement with you. If anything, you should thank them for helping to ensure that the item has been preserved and cared for.
2) I have friends in the FBI, NCIS, CIA, MI-5, etc., and am launching an investigation about you and how you get your items.
Seriously, this or something similiar is said in about half the 'lost family items' situations. Rather than "Thanks for caring for our family heirlooms", the person is slapped with "I'm going to investigate you unless you turn over the items I want." Predictably, this conversation is over before it starts, and the current owner of the items decides that they would rather burn them to slag than turn them over to the asshat that is demanding them. (That's you, in this case.) That's also the fastest route to failure.
3) As a member of the family, I am morally entitled to this item.
Sorry, but we collectors beg to differ. Though we can all usually back the idea that it is great for an interested family member to have the historical items related to their family's service.. that is certainly very often NOT the case. Often collectors show far more appreciation for the history of these items and take much better care of them than family members.
4) As a relative, you must transfer custody to me for a very nominal amount, or better yet - for FREE.
Sorry, these items have value. As collectors we have also seen many of our fellows burned by family members who came forth to emotionally lay claim to long lost items, only to have them reappear on eBay a few weeks or months later, thus revealing their true motivation. If you are lucky enough that the current custodian of your family heirloom offers to sell it for fair market value - simply buy it. Don't cry poverty and demand it for less. If it truly means that much to you, sell something else you own to raise the money. You can always go to the store and buy another big flat-screen television later on. How often do you get the chance to buy your Grandfather's medals?
Seriously, if you have found your family item, it still exists, and the owner is willing to sell it, then you have hit the lottery several times over. Most of us collectors would be happy to pay practically anything for our own family items that were lost to the ages long ago. Here you have the golden ticket that we all dream of, and yet on top of that you want it on the cheap? Any sympathy for you is out the window at this point.
So in summary:
1) DO be polite and appreciative of the fact that the current owner and his or her fellow collectors have SAVED your item from the ash bin of history.
2) DO NOT accuse anyone of stealing it, simply because it is no longer in the family.
3) DO express your sincere interest in acquiring the item for it's historical value to you and your family.
4) DO NOT suggest that they have a moral obligation to sell it to you.
5) DO express your understanding that such things have value, and that you are willing to pay fair market value for the item
6) Don't turn into a psychopath if they say "no." Sometimes the most happy reunions are belated - a collector might enjoy an item for a number of years, and then later elect to sell it. If they said "no", but you calmly asked for a chance of first refusal if they ever did decide to sell it in the future.. a few years down the road, you may be in luck.