Expert appraisers work together at Skinner auction house to find, appraise, and research rare, beautiful, and historically important items. In this blog series, we will meet some of these experts and learn the stories behind their success.
Skinner is proud to introduce a new specialty focus on Historic Arms and Militaria under the direction of specialist Joel Bohy. The first Militaria auction under his direction takes place on May 4, 2013 in Marlborough in conjunction with an auction of Clocks, Watches & Scientific Instruments.
How did you first become interested in military history?
I have been interested since I was a kid. As a boy, I spent most of my time hanging around at Minute Man National Historical Park (MMNHP). Patriot’s Day was almost like Christmas to me — I couldn’t wait to go to all the events. My parents used to indulge my interests and take me all over the park until I was old enough to ride my bike. After that, I’d take off on my own to find particular locations I’d learned about by reading primary accounts of the events of April 19th. Now I spend much of my free time presenting living history programs at MMNHP, and I’m a member of the Public Ceremonies and Celebrations Committee in Concord.
Why are living history programs and reenactments of historical events important?
These programs help make history more multi-dimensional. It’s one thing to study an object like a shovel or a musket, and it’s another to go out and actually use it. I would go to history class in high school, then go to reenactments on the weekend or volunteer at the park, and I’d understand much more of what I’d learned. For me, the material culture and actual locations bring the history to life much more than something on a written page.
What periods of history interest you the most?
I’m interested in the American Revolution through World War II. When I was researching the 101st airborne division at the Battle of the Bulge, we flew to Europe and visited the foxholes these soldiers lived in. We spoke to veterans who explained to us how difficult things were in the winter of 1944-1945. We’re trying to collect some of these stories before all of the veterans from this era have passed on.
It seems that Militaria is about much more than just objects – you’re curating stories about real things that happened to real people.
Exactly. A great example is coming up in the May 4th auction. We’re offering the temporary grave marker of Randall Mann from Leicester, Massachusetts who was killed in 1862. The men in his unit carved this board and put it at the head of his grave. We also have a hundred letters of his, and the flag that covered his casket when he was disinterred and brought home. This is a fascinating piece of history.
You are known for your skill at reproducing period clothing. What is this process like?
First, we research the clothing worn by a specific regiment at a specific time and then we assemble all of the materials. The cloth, plain weave broadcloth, comes from England. It’s expensive, so it’s necessary to have a complete understanding of the pattern and how it goes together before I start cutting. Once the pieces are cut out, I sew it together by hand using the same type of thread that would have been used during that period in history.
Recently, I reproduced a coatee that was in the collections of the Concord museum, and then donated it to the museum. They’ll use it for a hands-on program where kids can see the original, then handle the reproduction to feel the coarseness of the cloth and see how it was made.
Could you tell us more about the book and museum exhibit you’re working on?
The book is on objects related to April 19th and the Battle of Bunker Hill. I’m working with the artist/historian Don Troiani, who paints important historical events. We’re finding objects in local historical societies and museums, and are assembling photographs of these objects together with Troiani’s paintings of the events with primary documentation. The upcoming exhibit at the Concord Museum that I’m working on with curator David Wood is called The Shot Heard Round the World: April 19, 1775, which will be on view from April through September 2014. I wrote a blog post about one group of objects that will be displayed – the musterfield flints.
What are your plans for Militaria at Skinner?
We are working to develop Historic Arms & Militaria as a specialty area that combines scholarly historical focus and material culture to develop a department that is unique in the militaria field. We’re off to a strong start with our offerings on May 4th!