Rhode Island auction house Bruneau & Co just tapped Joel Bohy as its new director of historic arms and militaria. Much like Bruneau & Co’s other directors Kevin Bruneau and Travis Landry, Bohy, too, is an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He formed his interest in the material from a young age and today finds his passion exploring the history of these artifacts, flushing out their stories while channeling them to their proper place in the present market. We sat down with the new director to learn about his research projects and approach for building out a new department on the Eastern seaboard.
How did your passion for early American artifacts begin?
I grew up in Concord, Mass., not far from where the battle that started the American Revolution happened on April 19, 1775. As a child I was infatuated with it and spent a lot of time walking the sites and reading primary accounts — that really sparked an interest in the material culture. As I got older, I would visit local museums and historical societies to track down objects in their collections related to the time. It is something I still do and really enjoy. It’s like a really cool scavenger hunt!
And where has it led you thus far? What kinds of organizations are you involved in?
One of the institutions from my youth, the Concord Museum, I became very close with. I have volunteered with them on many exhibits including “April 19,1775: The Shot Heard Round the World,” and am currently volunteering on a new April 19 exhibit with them. I am a member of the American Society of Arms Collectors, and I am passionate about conflict archaeology. I have worked on many battlefields as a volunteer and in order to learn proper methodology, I took numerous courses with “Advanced Metal Detecting for the Archaeologist” (AMDA) and became an instructor a few years ago. It is fun as a martial material culture specialist to work with a team of fantastic archaeologists to find and identify history that will educate folks, especially on projects where there just isn’t a lot of funding and they need trained volunteers.
I understand you vacation a little differently than most.
I use all of my vacation time to volunteer on battlefield archaeology, or our self-funded musket ballistics studies. I have worked on the Parker’s Revenge Archaeology Project at Minute Man National Historical Park, Gettysburg, and many other important sites. A group of us also live fire custom-built guns to research their historic function and capabilities. We metal detect each musket ball after every round is fired and study what data we find. These studies have been published for archaeologists and historic firearms researchers to use. It is fascinating and very gratifying.
What are some of your favorite moments from out on a dig?
I enjoy working as a member of a team to learn more about history and to have the information we find shared for educational purposes. Last year I had the honor and privilege of volunteering at Saratoga National Historical Park with the National Park Service and American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR). I worked training veterans with PTSD and other wounds to use metal detectors and proper archaeological methodology to better understand a part of the battles around Saratoga. I never excavated an object, but I certainly did learn a lot! Working with those folks was one of the highlights of my life and I’m going back to work with them again in the fall. That project changed me personally and I still talk to a lot of the veterans I worked with every few weeks to see how everyone is doing.
And you still find time to teach about history?
I love coupling archaeological artifacts with extant complete artifacts and documentation. It really helps us understand the weaponry, material culture and the people who fought. I like to try and share all of this when I can through talks and battlefield walks. I feel it helps educate others who might also gain an interest in the subject.
This is a new auction category for Bruneau. What does the road look like before you? What mechanics are you excited about in department building?
The road looks fun! I am going to enjoy building the department and finding some new, fresh items to bring to auction. New England is a great location for finding great objects.
How many sales do you plan on having every year?
We are planning on two auctions a year, and possibly adding a third as we get the material.
Research is a large part of this category, placing each item within its historical context. Do you find yourself going down a lot of rabbit holes?
Research is key with some of the objects. Pulling the story of a human together with the object not only adds to its monetary value, but it also adds to its historical value. Rabbit holes are inevitable and sometimes there is only so far you can go.
I imagine you don’t mind, though. It’s a history buff’s dream.
It is exhilarating when you can find records to tie things together. Sometimes you end up seeing the item after it has sold on display at a show, or in museum exhibition and that really is neat.
Do you have any one period or area of focus? What do you love to hold in your hands?
As I mentioned earlier, the start of the American Revolution is my main area of personal study and focus although I do like the later Revolutionary War material also. I love holding an object like a carved powder horn with a name and a date. Then the fun begins trying to track the original owner down and put the story together.