|By Kathleen L. Floyd
FINDLAY, Ohio — It looked like a Veteran’s Day tribute at Old Barn Auction, when the collection of the late Dr. Wayne Pettyjohn sold there on February 16. There were historic Marine Corps uniforms, helmets, medals and emblems, as well as an outstanding selection of WWI trench art. There were many other special finds, like Japanese suits of armor and early Prussian helmets, known as pickelhaubes. All 513 lots came from Pettyjohn’s home in Stillwater, Okla.
In 2014, three years before his death, Pettyjohn and his extraordinary collection were featured on an Oklahoma City television news broadcast. On the program, they showed countless displays of historic military items, which packed the rooms of Pettyjohn’s house. Unbelievably, he and his wife lived in their own, private military museum.
Pettyjohn told the reporter he started his collection as a young boy when his great uncle, a WWI veteran, gave him a shell casing from the war. He recounted how he scoured the entire country for the next 70 years, buying military items. Along the way, he became an authority on military history. He enjoyed sharing his love of history, and had a knack for making any item in his collection come to life by telling the story behind it.
Old Barn owner and manager Vicky Sorgenfrei relied on her gun and military consultant, Steve Kiene, to bring Pettyjohn’s relics to life for bidders. Kiene did it through the descriptions he wrote in the 32-page auction catalog.
Pettyjohn served as a Corporal in the Marines so he focused predominately on US Marine Corps memorabilia, but a Japanese samurai suit of armor from his collection captured the highest bid of the sale. The armor was made mostly of hand-forged metal and sold with a Kabuto helmet, badge and flag. Made around 1900, it showed reasonable age and wear, striking $2,750.
Prices include a 10% buyers’ premium.
The most significant WWI uniform to sell was from a soldier who served in the US Marine Corps division that fought at Belleau Wood in France. According to Kiene, it was the first major battle for the U.S. Marines in WWI. He described the bloody combat and the Marines’ mission to stop the German troops who had set up in the woods on their way to Paris. More than 1,800 Marines died there. Thousands more were wounded but against tough odds, the unstoppable Marines turned back the Germans to save Paris. It was the proving ground where the Marines’ earned the nickname “Devil Dogs.” The uniform at Old Barn featured three desirable medals, including the prestigious Fourragere shoulder cord, presented by the grateful French government. Displayed on a mannequin, the uniform sold with a doughboy helmet which had the red square insignia. It also included a gas mask, Marine collar disks, original shoulder patch and other accessories, when it marched to $1,540.
Another important piece of history was the uniform of Lt. Col. Phillip Burnham from Marine Attack Squadron 214, Black Sheep, VMF-214. Burnham flew in WWII and Korea, earning the distinguished Flying Cross. The uniform included his helmet, gas mask and leather flight jacket, with the famous Black Sheep patch. It also sold with Burnham’s awards, flight books, flight logs, literature, letters and photos. The personal artifacts of one man’s military service reached $1,320.
Depending on rarity and condition, some of the many military emblems also earned high bids. The top-selling frame of emblems included four early and hard-to-find Marine Corps hat insignias with the eagle, globe and anchor (EGA). Seven sets of USMC collar disks and two different EGA collar pins were also sold. Together, they reached an impressive $1,540. Two reference books on Marine Corps emblems that showed the many variations over the years sold together for $275.
“You’ll never see another collection like it,” Kiene said of Pettyjohn’s many fine pieces of WWI trench art. There were vases, lamps, ashtrays, and airplanes, made of empty shell casings and other items found on the battlefields. Kiene disclosed that although it is called trench art, very little of it was made by soldiers in the trenches. Instead, local people who lived near the battlefields made most of it and sold it to the soldiers as souvenirs.
One lot included two brass vases made of 75mm shell casings, which stood at least 14 1/2-inches tall. The first vase was embossed with a rose and the lettering, “Metz 1918.” The other embossed vase depicted seven women in different poses. Together, the vases brought $412.50. A trench art lamp, decorated with a white dove and flowers, stood 34-inches tall on a wooden base. With fixtures for three light bulbs, it raised $467.50. Another trench art group included four desktop airplanes which sold together for $522.50.
The auction featured more than a dozen Prussian pickelhaubes, which were early military helmets with a pointed metal spike on top. Kiene said most of the examples at the auction were pre-WWI. They were made of leather and didn’t hold up well in battle. EventualIy, the ornately embellished pickelhaubes were used mainly for dress or parades, while the soldiers wore metal helmets in combat, he explained. Pickelhaubes performed well at Old Barn with most of them selling between $600 and $1,000 a piece.
Of course, Pettyjohn’s collection also included dozens of historic US Marine Corps helmets. One fine example was a USMC shako hat, which is a tall, cylindrical cap with a small visor. It was from the 1800’s and had a red plume and prominent EGA insignia, along with its chinstrap and liner. In excellent condition, it brought $660.
Bidders had a chance to buy many framed military pictures which once adorned the walls of Pettyjohn’s home. One of the highlights was a document with the signature of German Field Marshal, Erwin Rommel, who was known as “The Desert Fox.” Kiene pointed out that in Rommel’s position, he signed many papers early in the war, but this one was interesting because it listed a dozen soldiers for whom Rommel was requesting battle awards. Dated May 8, 1942, the framed document, which was mounted with a color illustration of Rommel, sold for $825. For information contact Old Barn Auction at 419-422-5321 or www.oldbarn.com.