“Excuse the mess,” David Peller says as we enter the study of his Silver Spring apartment.
The room doesn’t look that messy to me. It just evinces the sort of honest dishevelment you’d expect in the sanctum of an 81-year-old man who has a lot of interests. There are piles of books and magazines, stacks of newspaper clippings, the opened hard drive of an old computer. . . .
I’m here to see the badges.
David pulls a frame from a bookcase. Behind glass and neatly pinned to squares of crimson velvet are tiny metal badges. They are quarter-scale souvenir replicas of badges carried or worn by law enforcement officials the world over.
U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent. Edwards Air Force Base Security Police Officer. Department of the Army Walter Reed Chief of Police. U.S. Customs Special Agent (which is not to be confused with U.S. Customs Inspector or U.S. Customs Customs Officer).
“They’re all different,” David says. “Of course, a lot use the same basic model. Like some only use eagles. Or stars. Sheriffs use primarily the star. But there are variations. Gold. Silver. Five points, four points, six points, ad infinitum, no end to it.”
And no end to collecting. David estimates that he has acquired 2,000 badges since he started amassing them in 1987.
He has mini-badges from France (“some of the prettiest”) and Canada (“They’re very colorful”) and England (“They’re usually on the bobbies’ helmets”).
“I’m dealing with a guy in Malta,” he says. “I’m trying to get one from his department.”
David is a retired federal worker. He declines to be more specific but allows that he spent most of his career overseas, in France, Germany, England and Spain. I like to think he did wet work for the CIA, a la Jason Bourne.
To be a hard-core collector is to experience tiny shivers of satisfaction within a larger framework of disappointment. How can you possibly own every single Marvel comic book/milk glass candy dish/Leica camera/ Zippo lighter/Orwell first edition? The collector’s life is an endless hunt.
“I’d like to have a pin for every police agency in the world or just the United States,” David says. “It’s something that you strive for.”
David says he’s never been on eBay. “I’m probably too ignorant to know how it works,” he says.
If he did venture there, David would see that the prices of miniature police badges range from $5 to $40. (“People are greedy,” he says.)
He once took some of his pins to Police Week, the event that draws thousands of officers to Washington each May.
“I had a frame of the miniature badge pins of all the state police and highway patrols in the United States,” he says. “Under each state was the state flag, and under that was a little oval label which had the two initials of the state. One guy came up to me and — it’s no lie — he offered me 1,200 bucks. I refused it.”
David would never sell a badge — or pay for one. He’s strictly a trader. He attends a few pin and badge shows every year — there’s a good one in Riverdale — and is happy to unload his duplicates if it brings him new examples. He has a bunch of law enforcement patches that he trades, too. (He’d love to trade with you. E-mail him at email@example.com.)
He’ll never be done collecting badges, of course, but when he’s done collecting, David wants his collection to go to the National Law Enforcement Museum, under construction at Judiciary Square.
David suspects that law enforcement agencies are handing out fewer miniature police badges these days. There’s the cost of producing them. Also, the rising popularity of challenge coins may have overshadowed them. Then there’s the security issue. While no one would mistake a thumb-size badge for the real thing, the finely detailed mini-badges could be used to create something realistic.
When he was a kid growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, David collected stamps. He joined the Air Force and was sent to Europe.
“I brought my own souvenir back to the States,” he says.
That’s Micheline, his French-born wife of 60 years. Micheline has her own collection: hat pins, more than 400 of them.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.