“Back off, buddy, or I’ll end you.” That’s the message behind pretty much everything that falls under the heading of arms and armor. Some pieces shout it louder than others, but the message is clear, no matter if it was designed to kill a foe cleanly and quickly, or to protect its wearer, or to scare the enemy on sight in hopes that he’d surrender without the bother of spilling blood. The category spans millennia and covers almost anything that was made for combat, or made to resemble something used in combat. It is absurdly huge, as well, ranging from ancient material up to relatively recent firearms.
Modern collectors first encounter arms and armor in a museum rather than on a battlefield, and that’s not due to trends in warfare. A strong arms and armor display is worth every penny to a museum. It draws crowds, and it pulls in people who are the toughest to engage—boys and grown men who might otherwise think museums are not for them.
Dirk Breiding, the J.J. Medveckis Associate Curator of Arms and Armor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, cites internal research showing that one out of two patrons visits the arms and armor galleries. “It was a very good result, and it’s a good bargaining chip with the administration,” he says. Jeffrey Forgeng curated the collection at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Mass., which closed in 2013. The Worcester Art Museum (WAM) accepted much of the Higgins collection and hired Forgeng. He reports that after the WAM installed Higgins arms and armor in its medieval galleries, “it went from one of the least-visited galleries to one of the most popular.” In fact, Forgeng’s professional path began with boyhood trips to see the arms and armor collection at the Met, “which was a treat for me on a Saturday.” By the age of 10, he was exploring other areas of the museum, but he ended up returning to his first love for a living.
Red Finer, director of the arms and armor gallery founded in London by his father, Peter Finer, can testify to the lure of his wares, particularly armor. “We’re the only [arms and armor] shop. It’s an opportunity to get closer to the pieces. Ninety-nine percent of people on the earth have never had a chance to get close to armor,” he says. “People are drawn to it. They want to touch it.” Though weapons certainly have their fans, armor seems to strike a deeper, more resonant chord, maybe because it suggests the shape of a person. “The more anatomical it is, in terms of pleasing the eye as a human figure, the more valuable it is,” says William Fagan of Faganarms in Clinton Township, Mich.
If you’re willing to substitute an open mind for an open wallet, you can find many entry points for the arms and armor field. James Julia, founder of an eponymous auction house in Maine with specialties that include American-made firearms, reports that today’s new arrivals focus on items used in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. He says that in the 1950s, bidders sought firearms from before and after the Revolutionary War; by the 1980s, they wanted Civil War-era guns; and by the turn of the century, they were seeking weapons from the world wars. Fagan finds that popular culture influences what people ask him for. After the Pirates of the Caribbean movies came out, he received calls for swords that were used for piracy in the islands where the films were set. Fagan offered Caribbean cup-hilted rapiers, a weapon that fit the bill perfectly.
The priciest objects tend to be complete suits of parade armor from the 18th century and earlier. Parade armor is the knight’s equivalent of his Sunday best. It’s an exquisitely decorated armor that could withstand a fight, but which he donned for the same reason that a peacock spreads his tail feathers—to strut his stuff. “Parade armor only comes to market incredibly rarely,” says Thomas Del Mar, a London dealer who auctions in association with Sotheby’s and who dispersed some of the Higgins collection. “If you only collect high-quality parade armor, it’s tough to build up a collection of more than a dozen pieces in a lifetime.” Great examples of antique armor sell well, regardless. In July, Sotheby’s London auctioned an early 17th-century Milanese three-quarter length armor for just over £1 million ($1.3 million) against an estimate of £300,000–500,000 ($388,000–646,000). Del Mar, who helped write the lot notes, deemed it “the best seen at auction for four decades” for its type.
Though suits of armor were expensive when new and maybe more expensive as antiques, it didn’t make sense for fathers to hand them down to their sons in the same way that they would a fine watch, and not merely because suits of armor were pieces of military technology. They were items of haute couture, too. “Nobody wanted to be wearing his dad’s armor. It was social suicide,” Forgeng says. “It was a highly fashion-conscious society. Nobody wanted to wear armor that was out of date.” Breiding adds a keen observation about the connection between ultra-pricey luxuries of the past and the present that are sculpted in metal: “If you want a fantastic car, you buy it from southern Germany or northern Italy. If you wanted to buy the best suit of armor, you went to southern Germany or northern Italy. The infrastructure was always there, in that respect.”
Suits of parade armor are scarcest, but that doesn’t mean that less fancy examples are any cheaper or easier to get. Like most things that are assembled from dozens of individual components, suits of armor have a tendency to drift apart as the years turn into decades and the decades yield to centuries. “Finding full suits of armor on the market today is next to impossible. The demand is much greater than the pieces actually available. Only a few suits appear on the international market each year,” says Robert Weis of Hermann Historica in Munich, Germany. “So many collectors focus on buying armor parts, often trying to put suits together from matching parts they have been acquiring over the years. Helmets have always been the most important parts of European armor, so, especially, closed helmets are very sought-after. There are even collectors focusing on helmets only, not bothering with other armor parts.”
The rarest suits are homogenous—those that are composed of their original pieces and kept together through time. Anything else is a composite, a suit that is assembled from parts that are period-correct. In 2009, before Breiding arrived at Philadelphia, the museum scored what he deemed “a stunning coup” when it acquired a complete set of horse armor along with a complete set of human armor. Both were from the early 16th century, both were made in Germany and decorated with the same technique, and both were homogenous. The only way the two sets could have been better is if they were deliberately created to go together. “That was probably the most important arms and armor acquisition in the field in recent memory,” Breiding says.
David Williams, a Bonhams specialist in antique arms and armor, says, “Now more than ever, collectors want quality and condition, and really, the most important is condition.” When speaking of antique guns and crossbows and other shooting weapons, condition includes whether or not the thing can still do what it was built to do. In general, collectors want them to be capable of firing, even if they’ll never be used again. “Functionality goes with condition,” he says. “It’s important that they can be shot. If it’s in good condition, it can be fired under the right conditions, but it’s being bought as an ornament.”
Still, we are talking about arms and armor here. If a piece is damaged in a way that tells a thrilling story, it can be more tantalizing than an identical piece that’s survived without a scratch. In WAM’s medieval galleries, there’s a circa-1500 heavy steel German jousting armor that has deep gouges in the neck. “It gives you a fabulous window on the intensity of jousting,” Forgeng says. “It speaks to the impact delivered by jousting spears.” WAM also has an early-1600s German breastplate that was patched together after taking a few bullets. “It’s clearly an object that saved the life of its wearer on multiple occasions. If it had completely broken, it would have been scrapped,” he says. “It’s got a lot of personality to it because of the damage.” Del Mar recalls selling for mid-five figures “a wonderful helmet with cuts to the left-hand side of the skull, struck by a right-handed opponent. It added to the charm.”
Eastern arms and armor are about as coveted as Western material. Last November, Sotheby’s caused a stir when it offered the first Chinese Imperial firearm ever to come to auction. Dubbed “The Supreme Number One,” it fetched £1.9 million ($2.5 million) against an estimate of £1–1.5 million ($1.3–1.9 million).
Barry Ellsworth, a dealer in Santa Fe, N.M., handles top-of-the-line homogenous samurai armor. He says that it’s easier to get full suits of antique samurai armor than full suits of antique European armor, but only just. “It’s not harder yet, but it will be, and it’s getting more difficult,” he says. Broad commonalities hold true for samurai and European armor. Both doubled as items of war and fashion, and both have a point past which they stop being made as defensive tools and start being made to exploit romantic notions of the past (in Europe it’s the 19th century, and in Japan, it’s after Commodore Perry showed up in 1853). But with samurai, wearing your dad’s old mask and helmet was all right if your dad was a great warrior and you wanted to invoke his power for yourself. Gear from older generations was preferred, however. “The helmet and the mask are two of the most noble pieces of samurai armor,” Ellsworth says. “They would incorporate them [in the armor ensemble] because they belonged to their ancestors, whom they revered. If the helmet and mask are from an ancestor you admire, and their karma is good, then it’s good.”
The arms and armor market has been around for centuries. It remains stable and largely immune to speculative buyers. It didn’t come through the 2008 downturn unscathed, but it didn’t suffer unduly, either. The greater threat seems to be a lack of supply. Finer predicts that collectors of European armor will start turning to material they once disdained. “I think there will be increased demand for 19th-century objects. They can be snobby about them because they were made more as works of art,” he says. “It’s become such a challenge to find great earlier material. We still do quite a lot of business with museums, but once it’s in a museum, it’s off the market, and it’s not coming back.”
Fagan, who is 74, reports that business is booming. He credits the Faganarms webpage with bringing in much-coveted millennial buyers. “Our business has tripled in the last decade,” he says. “We have seen a shift from the dedicated gun-show followers and exhibitors to the enthusiastic 30-somethings who want to introduce an element of the past and history into their lives. Owning these historic things satisfies that desire without dominating the environment. Every indication that we have is for steady growth.”
Samurai Armor in the classic style, courtesy Ellsworth Gallery