Howard County man owns 800 U.S. flags, thousands of pieces of memorabilia

Nick Artimovich, 56, has been a flag collector for more than 30 years - he has more than 700 flags and thousands of flag-related memorabilia.
By Stephanie Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

It's a given that Nick Artimovich will display an American flag outside his home on the Fourth of July. The only question is: Which one?

Artimovich, 56, has collected upward of 800 U.S. flags and thousands of flag-inspired memorabilia since the 1970s. When not at his day job -- highway engineer for the U.S. Transportation Department -- he is a vexillologist, devoting himself to the study of flags. He takes this time of year more seriously than most.

"It's time to celebrate our nation's history," he said. "We've had over 225 years as a country, and we've had a lot of changes in those years. And my interest in preserving these artifacts is a way of helping key my interest in American history to things that were actually produced back in the good old days."

Artimovich, who lives in Columbia, rattles off flag characteristics with the authority and fervor that others impart baseball statistics. Peering through wire-rimmed glasses, he unfurls a vivid flag from the 1870s on which stars are grouped into a larger star. Manufacturers arranged them however they pleased until 1912, when the orderly rows of today's flag became standard.

A novelty flag mixes the banners of the United States, Britain and France -- Allied forces in World War I -- into a kaleidoscope of red, white and blue.

Another, with 38 stars honoring Colorado's statehood, was won along with dozens of others at what he considers a particularly lucky auction. "I won't say I drooled," Artimovich says, "because that would cause running and fading of colors."

The oldest flag in his possession is a 28-star banner from the 1840s, its stripes now muted shades of salmon and gray. The biggest: a yacht flag measuring 15-by-23 feet. The most expensive: a Lincoln campaign flag, bought for $2,000 (and later sold for $12,000).

In all, Artimovich has spent an estimated $75,000 on his collection, which also includes stars and stripes emblazoned on pins, patches, bookmarks, fans, card games, "Star-Spangled Banner" sheet music, cigars, illustrations, ribbons, soldier figurines, valentines and postcards.

There are more than a thousand books on flag history, all shelved according to height. Civil War-era advertisements invoke Old Glory to promote Betsy Ross-brand shoes, Wrigley's gum, a German shipping company, a Japanese silk manufacturer, a rowing club, bone fertilizer, a printing press and a piano store.

"There are so many ways you can collect flag antiques. You just have to look for them," Artimovich says. "It sounds like a very narrow theme, but the variety you find is just amazing."

Born in North Andover, Mass., Artimovich grew up touring Lexington, Plymouth, Cape Cod and other historical sites. He fell into collecting at an early age, starting with stamps and coins. But his interest in flags was sparked in high school when a teacher gave him a 48-star flag he'd been eyeing.

It began a lifetime of hunting through antique shops, auctions and online retailers such as eBay. These days, Artimovich is cataloguing his collection -- stored in acid-free folders and a climate-controlled basement -- with the picture-sharing Web site Flickr.

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