By SHELDON BERMONT/Petaluma Towns Correspondent
Retail stores don’t often have items that are priced between $1 and $18,000, and it’s even harder to find a store that comes with its own museum, but Wally Peterson’s Military Antiques & Museum can claim both.
Peterson, 58, understands that his massive display of weaponry will irk those who believe the public presentation of anything to do with war sends a wrong message. He defends his passion by saying, “The symbols and trophies of war that our soldiers brought back are all we have to insure that these major battles against tyranny and injustice will be remembered.”
Petersen and his partner Charles Numark opened their first version of the war relic emporium in 1991 in 300 square feet of leased space in the historic downtown Lanmart/Old Chicago Pizza building and billed it as “The Largest Military Store in the World.”
The store’s business card still bears Numark’s name, although he passed away in 2004, and Petersen fondly recalls Numark’s cluttered desk, piled to the ceiling with books and research materials used to purchase thousands of war items for both casual and professional collectors.
Numark’s prize WWII Harley Davidson, painted olive drab and rigged for combat with a scabbard to hold a Thompson submachine gun, was responsible for the $18,000 sale. A dollar will buy a shiny U.S. military brass collar disc that commonly decorated dress shirt collars.
The store and free museum exist in the downstairs of the tall-ceilinged, turn-of-the-century Levi’s factory building at 300 Petaluma Blvd. N. that Petersen bought in 2002. His wife Cindy operates The Petaluma Collective, an antique store on the street level.
“Almost every day people bring items into the store and ask if we are interested in buying,” he said. “That’s when we go into research mode. We’ll try to determine from the seller the item’s known history.
“I’ve been in the business for 21 years and a collector for over 40, so I’ll recognize many of the customers’ items right off. But for those I don’t, I’ll go to my library or the Internet.” Petersen’s library consists of more than 300 books stored on the shelving behind the elevated and gated office area.
“I’ll need to determine authenticity and value. Many items we see are replicas of rare pieces. We’re looking for authenticity above all else. Sometimes the process takes up to three or four days. It’s a lot like a criminal CSI investigation.”
He uses an ultra-violet light to tell the nature of the materials used in construction. Exact measurements also are key. If an item is off by as little as a millimeter, it becomes suspect. When in doubt, he asks a consultant who specializes in the item he’s considering.
Petersen pointed to a navy blue woolen uniform jacket, displayed on a hanger 12 feet in the air, and said, “That’s a WWII German SS tanker’s combat jacket, circa 1944. It’s rare because most of the SS got rid of their uniforms at the end of the war for survival reasons.”
For this one, Petersen said, he was approached by a freelance “picker,” someone who seeks out and cherry picks valuable items from garage sales, flea markets and estate sales. After Petersen researched the piece, they agreed on a price of $3,500, the most he has ever paid for a wartime relic.
“I try to be up front with my customers,” said Petersen. “If it turns out that an item is worth more than my original estimate, I make it a policy to call them back and make up the difference.”
When asked to defend his “largest in the world” claim, he said, “I’ve been all over Europe and have never seen anything that even came close.”
He has 6,000 square feet of space filled to the rafters with memories of the heroism and brutality of war. Weapons of every dimension and functionality are in glass cases or are mounted on the wall.
A construction team was hired to build the museum at a cost of almost $30,000, designing and building massive faux-cast iron doors, like those from a wartime bunker. Once inside, visitors find life-size, uniformed figures in wartime poses.
One exhibit depicts German and English soldiers sharing a cigarette and a drink on a Christmas Eve break from the action. Another focuses on Hitler and his lead generals.
Petersen has observed over the years that a large segment of his clientele place a higher dollar value WWI and WWII German items, but he also has items from as far back as 1812 and as modern as The Gulf War.
Petersen does not come from a military background as one might expect. His father got a deferment during the Korean War because he was the only son on a working farm. Instead, he was inspired by Petaluma Sgt. Richard Penry, whose bravery in Vietnam earned him the Medal of Honor in 1970. The museum is named for him.
“Hardened veterans have come in and, after seeing the amazing display, have been compelled to tell their own personal war stories. They’ve actually broken down and started crying because they’ve never told their stories before, not even to their families.”
Military Antiques & Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, at 300 Petaluma Blvd. N., 763-2220. For information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit militaryantiquesmuseum.com.