World War II era German Nazi U-boat submarine binoculars and case, $20.

Certain relics and collectibles from the Second World War, or 'WWII,' can be quite valuable finds, and this pair of 'Unterwasser Boot' (U-boat) binoculars is a great example of what I mean. Whenever I find myself trying to determine whether an item is worth buying to list on eBay, I usually ask myself a few questions.

Am I looking at an old uniform, a trench shovel, a book of ration coupons, or anything else that was made by the millions and cost very little to make? If I am, there's a very good chance that lots of 'priceless relics,' exactly like the one I'm considering, are still floating around out there. Or, is the item I'm looking at  one that was not made and issued by the millions, and may have been relatively costly to produce? If so, I may be looking at something that is both rare and sought-after.

Was the item intended for - and did it possibly really see - war action, or is it an item that was destined to pass the war in a more mundane, boring existence? As an idea of what I mean, consider a typewriter, which probably cost at least as much to manufacture as this pair of binoculars. But in one case, we're talking life perched on a secretary's desk miles from the front line. In the other case we have an atmosphere of romance or danger in the mix, like wartime adventure on the high seas, or slipping silently through the cold deep while dodging enemy depth charges? Get it? Collecting is emotional! Appeal to the collectors' emotions and you'll make money!

Look, there's very little in this business that's 'carved-in-stone.' But I hope this entry does give you something to think about the next time you encounter a piece of war memorabilia.

When I looked through the glasses, I saw the deterioration that so many older optics suffer from, which is known as 'flowering.' As I understand it, back in the old days it was either impractical or uneconomical to carve certain lenses from one piece of glass. So, many older optical instruments like these binoculars employed lenses that were actually two pieces cemented together. Over many years this cement eventually deteriorates, causing all sorts of unusual aberrations and bizarre designs where the two lenses are joined, rendering the sight picture virtually worthless. As serious as this problem of flowering may seem, it's not a difficult fix for the people familiar with these older optics. The really good thing about these glasses is the fact that the lenses have no scratches or other physical damage to their outside surfaces; a problem that cannot be repaired.

The thrift store where I found these binoculars wanted $20 for them, so I decided to just buy them and take an educated chance. But as I was placing the glasses back into their case, I saw it - the big Nazi eagle and swastika stamped right into the leather on the top of the case. I'd originally missed the most valuable clue of all! This little stamp changed everything, because what I now had was an authentic piece of WWII German memorabilia.

'Are you sure they're real, or do you think maybe they're reproductions?' a friend asked me when I told him the story about these binoculars. Since we're on the subject of war memorabilia, we may as well broach the problem of the reproductions that are flooding flea markets and yard sales nowadays. You may have seen them, too - the hats, medals, belt buckles, daggers, knives and all sorts of other items sporting the various military insignias, all shiny new and available at very reasonable prices. But in most cases, they're all for sale as reproductions. I've never had a vendor try to sell me an obvious reproduction as an original war relic, and I've never heard of anyone who bought a reproduction flea market knife whining that he was tricked or ripped off. These places aren't the problem.

The trouble lies when you see that one isolated piece, all by itself, in a thrift shop or at a yard sale. Years ago, I bought a large knife collection that contained about twenty reproduction Nazi knives and daggers. As opposed to the cheapo trash we see at flea markets nowadays, these were extremely high-quality pieces, German-made and obviously worth good money even as reproductions. The seller told me right off that they were fakes, and he showed me the original counterparts to several of these knives (which he unfortunately wasn't selling) to illustrate the difference. And believe me, when they were placed together, it was a cinch to tell them apart easily. So, the real problems arise when you have nothing to compare a particular piece to.

Whenever I see an old war item, I always try to consider the 'return on investment' angle. In other words, how much  time, effort, skill and money would it take to fake this particular item well enough to pass for an original? The fact is that although relatively pricey as a collectible, it would cost much more than one of these old pieces is worth to make an accurately-aged reproduction than it would to just buy an original.

These binoculars sold for $610 to a very appreciative buyer who planned to use them in a display of WWII German U-boat stuff.

Photo of German WWII Nazi U-boat submarine binoculars