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Attorney aims to turn collection of military headgear into museum.

ASK ANY SERIOUS COLLECTOR about the origins of his preoccupation, and more often than not, the answer will wend its way back to childhood. Maybe it was in the summer of '73, tearing open the wax paper wrapping on that first pack of Topps and chipping your teeth on the chalky substance the company called "bubblegum."

Little Rock attorney Robby Wilson began practicing law 35 years ago and is the founder of Wilson & Associates PLLC. He was bitten by the collector bug around age 4, by his guess. His weakness isn't baseball cards, but rather military regalia, a lifelong fascination that began with the Japanese helmets and swords his uncle brought back from the Pacific Theater of World War II.

Wilson's collection of military headgear grew for many years, and eventually took on a life of its own, far beyond anything that could be contained in the garage or hobby room--or, for that matter, reasonably be described as a mere hobby.

In January 2008, he started the Wilson History & Research Center, and a year later, the center became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Its charter is dedicated to collecting examples of every piece of headgear worn or developed by every military force in the 20th century.

That's a daunting task, considering the number and scope of conflicts that took place in that war-torn era.

"During the 20th century, there were 1 million standard approved styles of hats, helmets and caps," Wilson said. "That's 1 million separate pieces, but for every one approved, there were 10 modifications. So that's 10 million pieces for the 20th century."

Wilson stressed that his estimate is just that--an estimate. But even if his approximation is a little off, it still adds up to a huge number of artifacts, many of which are one-of-a-kind.

"Two years ago, I decided I cannot collect every piece. But I can photograph every piece that's available," Wilson said.

That's where the foundation's website,, comes in. Collectors from around the world can submit their items to be photographed and included on the site with supplementary information. They also can use the site as a research tool and contact the staff with inquiries, suggestions and corrections.

Wilson intends for the site to be a clearinghouse for the subject of military headgear, to both augment the foundation's physical collection and stand alone as its own educational entity.

Eventually, Wilson wants to develop a full-time museum to display the collection, and might make an announcement within the next year, he said. In the meantime, the center has lent out pieces for exhibits at museums in Arkansas and Florida, and will likely set up some exhibits later in the summer at its west Little Rock space, he said.

So far, the foundation--which is funded by Wilson, some of his friends and other benefactors--has assembled more than 10,000 pieces of headgear. New acquisitions are now coming in at a rate of about 100 a week, said Robert White, an Air Force veteran who is curator of the collection.

White and the nine other full-time foundation staffers and two interns work on the acquisition, restoration, research and documentation of the items in the collection. Though the foundation's focus is the 20th century, the collection is by no means limited to that period, or to headgear. It includes uniforms, documents, medals, swords and musical instruments.

Historical Headquarters

The west Little Rock offices of the Wilson History & Research Center are packed with artifacts. There is a palpable excitement in the air, and just below the staff members' bookishness bubbles a genuine enthusiasm for all of these rows and racks and stacks of military antiquities.

When an item comes in, it is meticulously inspected and cleaned. It's a painstaking process, and necessarily so considering that many of the items are several decades old, White said. Uniforms are sealed in thick plastic bags and everything gets tagged, photographed and verified by the foundation's team of researchers.

In one room, boxes are stacked on shelves up to the ceiling. Each contains a hat, helmet, hood, cap, mask, beret, fez, shako, kepi, busby, tam o' shanter or just about any other type of headwear used by a military force in the 20th century. Many were designed for combat, while others were ceremonial.

The thousands of clear plastic boxes look like they were designed specifically to store headgear, but actually "they're sweater boxes," White said, "from The Container Store."

They just happen to be ideal for storing and displaying helmets. White contacted the manufacturer and the foundation now orders them in bulk, direct from the factory, he said.

In another larger room are more boxes of helmets, arranged by nation. Paper signs are posted above each stack--Indonesia, Mexico, Croatia, India, Iraq and so on. Scores of countries are represented in the collection, but American, British and German helmets, circa World War II, make up the majority, White said.

Wilson's office contains some of the most impressive pieces of the collection, including a tuba used by the Musikkorps der Leibstandarte--a brass band that played for Hitler--and those Japanese samurai swords Wilson's uncle brought back.

The walls of the adjoining conference room are lined with shelves containing dozens of helmets. Many bear the markings of the soldiers who wore them. Names of their divisions and the cities and campaigns they fought in were hand painted on the underside of the brims of many of the helmets.

Rare Finds

Each item has its own story.

A grey wool beret had a history entwined with two nations. It was used by a Nazi-controlled aviation force and affixed with an embroidered Luftwaffe badge signifying a balloon pilot's qualifications. At some point, it was also adorned with a pin made for a Swiss civil hot-air balloon organization founded in 1910 and still active today.

Where did the center acquire such a rare item?

At a garage sale, White said, though he did not disclose how much the beret cost or what it is valued at.

Wilson also declined to discuss how much the center has paid for the pieces or the value of the collection, citing security concerns. He said some items were fairly common and were therefore relatively inexpensive while others were rare, and thus cost more. Many pieces have been donated to the center.

"As an institution, we don't authenticate for people and we don't price for people," Wilson said. "We educate people."

For years, Wilson acquired military headgear the way many collectors do--by spending many hours of his free time combing through surplus stores and antique shops.

"The first piece I can remember buying was a P-3 pilot's helmet that aviators wore in Korea, and I got that in 1962 at Bennett's Military store on Main Street," he said.

Nowadays, he and others from the center make trips to Europe for conventions and to purchase entire collections. "We drive around Austria and Germany and into Holland and France and kick tires," he said. "It's a lot of fun, but lately we've been buying whole collections."

Fighting Forgeries

As with other types of collectibles, counterfeits are a concern for military headgear buffs. Wilson said many of the helmets he purchased over the years turned out, after careful research, to be phonies.

In order to root out fakes and help collectors determine the truth about their valued possessions, Wilson partnered with a company in Florida called XRFacts LLC.

The company uses a method called X-ray fluorescence to determine the composition of the items, such as lead-based paint and other period-specific materials that can help verify the age and origin of helmets.

"That's our first step, to make sure that the paint is authentic, that the steel is authentic," Wilson said.

If it meets that test, the company performs others, such as researching the decals and any manufacturer tags and labels to ensure that the factory really did make that model, he said.

XRFacts was founded in December. The cost of evaluating and certifying an item is $250, not including shipping and insurance. After verification, each item is given a certificate with a unique registration number, according to the company's website.

Educational Endeavor

The center lends out some of its items, including several pieces that have been included in the exhibit "Law in a Land Without Justice: Nazi Germany 1933-1945" at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. The exhibit ends July 31.

The center has also lent items to the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in Little Rock.

Though Wilson has imported countless military antiquities from Europe to the United States, he has also brought some back across the pond.

In May 2009, he donated a restored L4 Grasshopper Piper Cub--a small plane that was used throughout World War II, including the D-Day invasion--to the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France.

Wilson's goals with the center are to educate the public not only about the specifics of military headgear, but also the role that military uniforms play in society and the perils of armed conflict, he said. Though he is fascinated by military regalia, he made no bones about the human toll of armed conflicts.

"War is terrible," he said. "It's awful. There's nothing good about it."

Wilson is not one to ignore history, and he hopes that through education, some of the violent incidents of the past might not have to be repeated.

By Robert Bell

RELATED ARTICLE: Wilson Seeks Original Owners of Samurai Swords

ROBBY WILSON'S INTEREST IN MILITARY gear was sparked by his uncle, Army Maj. Gen. Winston P. "Wimpy" Wilson, who brought back samurai swords and Japanese helmets from World War II. The elder Wilson also was instrumental in forming the Air National Guard in the 1950s, according to the ANG website.

"Before Wimpy died, he asked me to try to identify the owners of those swords and return them to Japan," Wilson said. "A samurai cannot go to heaven if his sword is lost."

Robby Wilson agreed to help get the swords back to their original owners.

Robert White, curator of the Wilson History & Research Center and a personal assistant to Wilson, has worked diligently during the last 10 years trying to find the families of the Japanese soldiers who owned the swords, Wilson said.

"But we found out all the families were wiped out, so we're going to probably return the swords to the Japanese antiquities group that is returning swords even though the families are gone," he said. "It's very important to get those swords back."

--By Robert Bell
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Author:Bell, Robert
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 5, 2010
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