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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Making a Buck by Selling Old T-34s

For MTJacques Littlefield posing by a T-34 that is part of his weapons collection in California. The writing on the tank says "For Stalin!"
In his collection of 220 military vehicles, Jacques Littlefield has a dozen Soviet models, including T-34 and Josef Stalin-3 tanks, and he is always on the lookout for more.

Littlefield, a self-described "tank nerd" whose collection sits on his 188-hectare ranch in Silicon Valley, California, receives offers over the Internet from people in Russia and Ukraine. But the offers fall through because the sellers cannot easily ship the vehicles or do not have what they are advertising, said Littlefield, whose late father, Edmund Littlefield, amassed a $1.7 billion fortune in construction and mining.

Enter Rosoboronexport, the state arms export agency, which has started exploring the possibility of selling World War I and II hardware from Defense Ministry warehouses to collectors and museums.

"It is an attractive market, and we cannot stand aside," said Rosoboronexport spokesman Alexander Uzhanov. "There is a growing number of requests from Austria, Britain, Germany, Finland and the United States for historical models, so we decided to team up with the Defense Ministry and see what we can sell from the stockpiles."

Up for grabs are anything from uniforms and small arms to T-34 tanks, ZiS-3 76mm artillery guns and Maxim machine guns. The hardware would be available in deactivated condition and in original and export versions.

Foreign armament would include German Mauser and Walther pistols, American and British models of Colt pistols, Thompson submachine guns, Lee-Enfield rifles, and German Tiger and Panther tanks — all of which were captured as war trophies or acquired under the American Lend-Lease program.

Rosoboronexport refused to put a price tag on any of the equipment, or say how much money it hopes to earn from the new business. The company, which was set up four years ago, saw its revenues soar to a post-Soviet record of $5.1 billion last year, mainly from sales of fighter jets.

"These weapons will not go at dumping prices," Uzhanov said.

Sergei Zharov, leader of a group of military enthusiasts in Tver who scour World War II battlefields in search of the remains of fallen Soviet soldiers and collect Soviet and Nazi weapons, said prices will depend on how many of each type of weapon are in Defense Ministry stockpiles and their condition.

A T-34 could fetch up to $20,000, while a Maxim machine gun could sell for up to $2,000 and a PPSh 7.62mm submachine gun could go for about $400, Zharov said.

The T-34 was the workhorse of Soviet armor divisions during World War II and for many Russians it symbolizes the Soviet military might in that war. More T-34s were produced during the war than any other tank, according to Soviet figures.

The Maxim was a legendary submachine gun that shot to fame in World War I and was used extensively by both sides in the Civil War. It was still in service in the Red Army when World War II began.

Uzhanov said Rosoboronexport has not advertised its expansion into old weapons yet and has just started compiling a catalog to be published later this year. The company expects the new line to generate interest in light of upcoming celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in May.

"These arms bear the image of our victory, our heroic past. We plan to increase arms sales, so why not use up these reserves as well?" Uzhanov said.

When a reporter told Littlefield about Rosoboronexport's venture, he greeted the news with enthusiasm. "It is a very nice development for me as a collector. If I had a contact there, I'd phone the next business day," Littlefield said by telephone from Portola Valley, California.

Littlefield's collection of military vehicles includes 66 tanks dating from World War II through the 1980s and is second perhaps only to the Russian armed forces' own collection at the Kubinka tank museum in the Moscow region. The museum has 290 vehicles, including 129 Soviet models.

Littlefield has more than a dozen Soviet-designed tanks, but none of them has come directly from Russia.

"They have been obtained from two sources — either from satellite countries in the old Eastern Bloc like Czechoslovakia and Poland, which had large stocks of Soviet-made vehicles, or from the stocks of Arab countries captured during wars with Israel, or, more lately, in Iraq," said Mike Stallwood, a British dealer who helped Littlefield acquire some of the weapons in his collection.

Littlefield said he paid $25,000 for a T-34 that was captured by the Germans and later sent to Britain. He also has a Josef Stalin-3 from Egypt that cost him $35,000.

Both Littlefield and Stallwood expressed interest in working with Rosoboronexport, saying it would be easier to work with an official institution than with small-time traders.

"They are an official company, and I would trust them more than an individual company. But I would start slowly with them to see if they can deliver," Littlefield said.

He suggested that Rosoboronexport brings tanks to Britain to help spread the word worldwide about their availability.

"You can get better prices if you have a T-34 sitting in England where you can see it, touch it, drive it, rather than in Moscow," he said.

Stallwood added: "It is possible that a commercial organization in Russia, especially with government approval, could run a profitable business selling collectors' military vehicles and equipment on the international market. However, because armor and guns are involved, this is a sensitive issue that would require handling discretely and within international laws."

This is where Rosoboronexport's plans run against a wall. The company for now can only sell arms to companies and organizations that have government-issued licenses.

"There is an understanding in Rosoboronexport that the procedure has to be liberalized," said Uzhanov, the spokesman. "It may require a presidential decree to declassify these arms in order not to have to go after government permission for every deal."

Even if Rosoboronexport ends up being allowed to sell to collectors like Littlefield, it will not make a lot of money off of the sales, said Marat Kenzhetayev of the Center for Arms Control, a Moscow-based think tank. "They will not see people rushing to buy these relics. For the most part, demand was satisfied in the early 1990s — and not by Russia."