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Q&A with Rick Carlile: On Obsessive Collecting Genes, Passion for CDVs, and More

A few years back at one of the collectors’ shows, Rick Carlile and I joked about being obsessive, a trait we share. Rick, a military veteran, illustrated his behavior with a story from his army days—a compulsion to check the gig line of his uniform. The seam of his shirt, buckle and trouser fly had to be in perfect alignment.

I first met Rick, a retired attorney from Dayton, Ohio, in the early 1990s at the Gettysburg Show. I remember his mind-blowing display of cartes de visite of soldiers in pairs, and it left a powerful impression that resonates today. There must have been 50 of them, all in near pristine condition and neatly aligned in rows and columns, the entire group contained in a case. I came away with a deep respect for Rick as a collector, and a realization that there were amazing images out there, and if you work at it long enough you might someday have a collection on par with his.

I later came to know Rick as a person—a friendly, humble and unassuming man with a self-deprecating sense of humor. When I became editor and publisher of MI, it was Rick who advised me to involve Rick Brown. Both Ricks have since made important contributions to the magazine and the collecting community.

Rick Carlile’s collecting journey has spanned decades, and has its twists and turns. Here are his recollections of collecting, and his thoughts about its future.

Military Images.
Military Images.

Q: When and how did you become interested in history and the Civil War?

I have had an interest in military things, from toy soldiers to books, as long as I can remember. I also have a major obsessive collecting gene, which appear in no other person in my family. The gene surfaced when I started collecting Landmark Books [a series for children published from 1950 to 1970 by Random House] and have a full set of over 100 of the American Series and over 50 of the World Series. The American Series included Gettysburg, Andersonville, Robert E. Lee and others. These volumes, and especially Custer’s Last Stand, hooked me on the Civil War and George Armstrong Custer.

Q: When did you begin collecting photographs?

After the Landmark Books came baseball (and some football) cards. At some point I became aware of Civil War images and became hooked, especially on cartes de visite, which I sometimes refer to as Civil War baseball cards. I bought my first carte in February 1978 of two armed Zouaves for $10. I later traded it to Dan Miller, and you can see it in his recent book, American Zouaves, 1859-1959. Next was an officer with a corps badge, which I got at the Ohio Gun Collectors Show, which was fertile ground for cartes in those days. The dealer had $10 on it, and I paid $9. I found my third carte at an outdoor antique show, which is where I also bought my first hard image for $40. It wasn’t until over a year later that I paid over $100 for another hard image.

Q: Some know you from your transformation as a collector of hard plates to cartes. How did this change happen?

I really went all in on hard images. As they became more and more expensive, they became harder to collect. At first, I reminded myself that ‘you can’t collect everything.’ By this time, my hard image collection had grown significantly, and I also had a sizable gun collection. I felt somewhat guilty because I had growing children and increasing expenses. Eventually, something had to give. So I let go of the guns and hard images. It was hard because hard images certainly have an attraction. But cartes were my first true love.

Q: Others know you for the amazing image displays at Civil War shows. One of my favorites was ‘Pards.’ What led you to feature such groupings?

I just became attracted to multiple soldier images. So I started to buy them. You might call it a focus for me, but that’s maybe too strong a word. I really just liked them. So the Pards images, usually different and unique, seemed to me to make for a good display and article. I was told the Military Images article was very popular. [See “Pards: Photos of Friends, Partners, and Pals” in the May-June 1986 issue and a follow up gallery in the September-October 1989 issue.] I still like them but there doesn’t seem to be the same amount in the market these days, although they were never common.

Military Images.
Military Images.

Q: What are some of your happiest memories of the shows, and how did they help you as a collector?

Happy? Who is ever happy collecting. More! More! I want it all! I really liked the old shows for the interactions with the likes of Herb Peck (what a character), Dan Deeks, Roger Hunt, Mike McAfee (was he ever happy?), Tom Gordon, Jim Stamatelos and even Bill Turner at times. I really can’t think of any enemies. The interactions these days are not quite the same for this old fart, but I certainly enjoy those with you and Rick Brown, and various other collectors. I am not the most outgoing and gregarious type. But I did go out of my way to visit Tom MacDonald in Eustis, Maine, on the border with Canada, when I was vacationing in the area. Tom was a dealer who worked through mailed catalogs and THE Maine image collector. He’s long deceased. Maybe some day I’ll tell you that story.

Q: What was the collecting community like in those pre-digital days?

I think it was a little more congenial. Back then, just as today, you really need connections to build a collection. Before digital you had to do a lot more legwork, going to various types of shows, antique stores, flea markets, local auctions, etc. I spent a lot of miles in my car chasing cartes and books. I see from Facebook that there’s still a lot of the person-to-person happening, and that’s a good thing. But I feel less connected in the digital world.

Q: Prices have changed dramatically since you began. Thoughts?

The market will always be the market. The common stuff pretty much stays the same, and the really good, desirable stuff will always be expensive. Why? There is a lot of money out there. But I am surprised on a lot of low prices individuals ask for decent identified cartes on Facebook.

Q: What are your views on the future of collecting images?

Ah the future. I honestly don’t see much difference than in yesteryear, generally speaking. The market will probably be the same because it is a rich man’s market, but this is not necessarily the same for all collectible items. As mentioned in the last question, you can still find bargains. Glad to see the growing number of women collectors. Okay, my predictions. Short term: Based on my sliding sales of books on eBay, I think the image market will be softer until the overall economy improves. Longer term: Sell now. But don’t expect me to follow my own advice. I love most of my stuff.

Q: What advice would you give to a young Rick Carlile as he began his collecting journey?

Go for it, but you sold too much good stuff and kept too much of other stuff. Collect, don’t accumulate. Keep reevaluating what you really want. Be a little more friendly. I know you are predominantly German and Scottish-Irish, but you did have a maternal French grandfather. Borrow a few French genes and lighten up.

Q: What does the future hold for you as a collector?

Based on what is on the current market, I think I should call it a day. Not sure I can be an obsessive collector, but I do have a pretty big collection to enjoy. As Rick Brown once told me, no one really knows my collection. The only problem is those damn collecting genes!

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