Tips of the Trade
Bruce Herman educates ANTIQUES ROADSHOW host Dan Elias about spiked military helmets.
The spike distinguishes the pickelhaube helmet.
These helmets are from the era of the First World War.
Though they've been polished to a brighter finish than the WWI helmets above, these pickelhaubes are actually older—and more valuable.
Militaria expert Bruce Herman says that most collectors are drawn to "pickelhaube" helmets for one reason. "Their appeal is the spike," Bruce says of the pointy adornment known as a "spitze" in German. "That feature makes these helmets unique, and they set the tone for helmets through the second half of the 19th century."
Tips for collecting this historic variety of military headgear
But it's not only Americans (their most common collectors) who desire them. "These are universally popular," explains Bruce, who is based in Pasadena, California. "Collectors come from Australia, Sweden, Germany, South America ... I've encountered collectors from all over the world." We asked Bruce to educate ANTIQUES ROADSHOW fans about the history of pickelhaube helmets and to provide some tips to potential collectors about what to look for. Here's what he told us.
A Prussian Design
The pickelhaube helmet was introduced in 1842, at a time when King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia undertook a major modernization of his army. Until then, his soldiers still wore the shako style typical of the Napoleonic Wars. Wilhelm tossed aside this headgear—tall, cylindrical hats now commonly worn by school marching bands—popular among Western armies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
"The king wanted a helmet that would set his army apart from any other, so the pickelhaube was born," Bruce explains. The German word "pickelhaube" translates as "pick cap"—in reference to the spike, or pick, on its top.
But contrary to popular belief, the spike was never meant as a weapon. Notes Bruce: "They were purely ornamental." The spike represented the spontoon, a short pike carried by infantry officers and sergeants in the 18th century.
After Prussia defeated France in the Franco-German War of 1870-71 and became the dominant army in Europe, "everyone started wearing them," Bruce says. Thirteen countries, including Sweden, Russia, England, the United States (U.S. Marines and Army soldiers wore the helmet from 1881 through 1902), and Mexico followed the fashion, placing spikes on their soldiers' helmets.
From Uniforms to Collectibles
During World War I, in the second decade of the 20th century, the spiked helmet went out of fashion, making way for more protective steel helmets, and virtually disappeared following the defeat of Germany in that war. Still, many have survived.
"If someone wanted to build a collection, they could easily find them," notes Bruce, who recommends militaria shows or arms and armor auctions. The ones worn by soldiers during World War I are the least expensive, and can be had for a few hundred dollars.
From there, prices can shoot as high as an artillery shell. The first Prussian helmets, especially the more elaborate ones worn by officers, are the most expensive and can sell for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars.
Advice on Collecting
For collectors, Bruce advises that condition is everything, especially in the leather-made spiked helmets. "You want something where the leather hasn't shrunk and dried and cracked," Bruce says. "Some of these can look really ugly after a hundred years."
Another problem for beginning and advanced collectors alike is hybrid helmets made from parts. "The parts are often taken from broken up helmets," Bruce explains. He says a few empty holes in the body of the helmet (new holes must often be drilled for added pieces) often provide evidence of a mix-and-match helmet.
Adds Bruce: "A little education, and some hands on experience, can usually keep a collector from making a mistake and getting 'stuck' with a put-together helmet."
Editor's Note: This article was updated on June 19, 2002, to correct an editing error in which the German term "pickelhaube" was incorrectly translated as "pickle helmet." The correct translation of this term is "pick cap," which refers to the spike, or pick, on top of the headpiece, not to its resemblance to a pickle.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Arms & Militaria category:
Tate Gallery Archive (Honolulu, 2007)
Armed With a Colt Letter ... (Mobile, 2007)
What's the Deal with Confederate Flags? (Salt Lake City, 2007)
Translation, Please ... (Tampa, 2006)
"American Indian" or "Native American"? (Bismarck, 2006)
Spotting "Fake" Firearms
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.