A Visit with an Israeli Arms Collecting Society

A Visit with an Israeli Arms Collecting Society


Originally Published  4/2001

In December of last year, I was invited by Israel’s Society of Ethnographic and Historical Edged Weapons Collectors to address their general membership meeting with a lecture on Chinese edged weapons of the late imperial period (14th century til 1911). The Society, numbering about 160 members, is the only arms collectors’ organization in the country. It has an enthusiastic membership, which collects and studies bladed implements from all periods and cultures. Stone Age to 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Filipino daggers and swords to Jewish kosher butcher knives and ritual circumcision implements. When it comes to sharp things, you name it, they’ve got it.  Members connect with the field in various ways, not just by merely collecting. There’s a retired auto dealer who, as a self-taught archaeologist, has published in a number of scholarly journals. Some guys are martial artists. One fellow comes from a family of knife makers, sharpeners, and retailers. A couple ofmembers are skilled restorers. The one thing that all ofthem share is a thirst for knowledge. The year before, a curator from London’s Wallace Collection came out to speak. It’s hoped that this will be an annual tradition from now on.

It’s fortunate that most Israelis learn English or some European language in school, because the country is so small (6 million) that there isn’t enough demand by local collectors for publishers to print many books on arms collecting. Enthusiasts have to rely on foreign books and magazines, mostly US or European.

There also isn’t any GUN collectors’ organization in the country. There are a number of sports hooting clubs,but none devoted to the study of historic arms. I was told that most Israelis are rather unsentimental about firearms-they are mainly seen as tools. Perhaps the country is too young, and prior to the formation of the State of Israel, most diaspora Jews did not have the tradition of bearing arms. The ownership of any guns using metallic cartridges is restricted to permit holders. An applicant for a permit must be interviewed by police officials, and can be turned down for subjective reasons. However, a gun permit can easily be obtained during military service, and once obtained, call be renewed indefinitely after discharge. Since all able bodied citizens (with the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews from a few denominations) must perform military service, the opportunity for getting a gun permit is widely available. Quite a few people take advantage ofit, including many members ofthe edged weapons society.

I got a chance to see a number of very fine private collections during my one­ week stay. For the lecture, I brought along some slides and transparencies, and got to cull the best pieces from the collections to highlight during the presentation. A few members are businessmen who used to travel to China regularly, and managed to indulge their hobby there. This opportunity, and the fact that they were knowledgeable connoisseurs, means they have some pretty fine pieces in their collections.

The original plan was for me to give a 90 minute presentation at the meeting. Later, a group of advanced collectors asked for a small discussion seminar at someone’s home, on the influence of Chinese martial traditions on Vietnam and Korea. The host happened to have a surprising number of Vietnamese swords and pole arms, and a rare Korean sword, and wanted more information on them. After jawboning those to death, we ended up digressing into the development of Cossack shashkas and Hungarian hussar sabers when members brought out their own pieces to show around.

The most popular field is bayonets and military knives. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. There isn’t much of the older European material there. Despite Israel being the heartland of the Crusader kingdoms and having a dry climate favorable to the long term preservation of artifacts, there are almost no medieval European swords in the country. Oriental weapons are more popular, and as can be expected, most of the material is Arab and Ottoman Turkish. However, Indian and Southeast Asian blades are enthusiastically collected, and there is at least one world-class collection of African knives.

Annual membership in the Society is about $100 per year. The dues sound kind of expensive by HHAA standards, but they include a full dinner at each meeting and cover the travel expenses of overseas lecturers. There are ten meetings annually, at a hotel in a resort town near Tel Aviv. Meetings start with a trading session (there are no arms-related shows in the country) which lasts maybe an hour, followed by a kosher buffet dinner. After that is a pretty brief business meeting, followed by a break. Then there’s a mini-auction (five or six items, the club taking a cut on the proceeds), and then the keynote lecture or a series of short “show and tell” presentations. The evening finishes up with more horsetrading, tall tales, and the like until the hotel banquet staff kicks everyone out because they want to close down and go home.

All in all, I was most impressed by the level of enthusiasm in this Israeli club, and the fact that it attracts aficionadoes of all ages. It is the nearest thing to the HHAA, and is far higher than the old-fart stodginess I’ve seen in the few arms collecting societies I’ve run into here on the Mainland.

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