The National Knife Collectors Association and the Club Knife
By J. Bruce Voyles
The National Knife Collectors Association began when a group of collectors—who had been working the gun shows in Tennessee and Kentucky—turned to knives following the Gun Control Act of 1968. They began to recognize the growing number of knife enthusiasts and held the combined opinion that organizing and promoting the growing trend would expand their new hobby, as well as their own businesses. The economic side of things was not ignored, as the new club was first called the National Knife Collectors & Dealers Association. The “& Dealers” was dropped a couple of years later for tax considerations. The first elected president of the new club was the leading knife dealer of the time, James F. Parker.
The year was 1972, and within two years, the organization had a small newsletter and had signed several-hundred members nationwide. In 1974, Parker proposed that the new club produce a collectors knife exclusively for its members as an incentive for membership. He chose an Anglo-Saxon whittler based on the most desirable Case pattern (and the highest collectors-knife value at the time)—the 6391 whittler.
No U.S. manufacturers were interested in producing this small run, so Parker approached Howard Rabin of Star Sales (Knoxville, Tennessee), the U.S. importer of German-made Kissing Crane knives. Rabin’s company was a major supplier of knives to the emerging knife collectors’ market, and he was eager to make the 1,200 knives that the organization needed.
In the brief history one can find of the NKCA, this all sounds like things went smoothly, but the reality is different. When Parker first presented the club knife idea to the NKCA board of directors, one of the board members remarked to a crowd following the meeting: “Oh my God, Parker has just bankrupted the Association.”
The club knife program at the time was an audacious move since the NKCA did not have 1,200 members. In the initial offering, the knives did not sell out at $12 each, and a subsequent mailing altered the one-per-member concept, allowing each member to order up to three each at $15 per knife. The #0001 knife was put up for silent auction, and was purchased by the late Jim Koch for $150. Afterward, numerous collectors said they would have paid more than that had they known that was all it would bring.
Thus the beginning of the club knives as a promotional tool and fundraiser for collector organizations began. The initial success of the venture can best be illustrated by the record of what followed within the NKCA. Within six years, the 1975 NKCA club knife that sold for $12 would sell for $600. The 1976 Club knife, a Case 4380 whittler, with a production of 5000, would sell out. The issue price of $15 would peak at a value of $250. Six thousand of the 1977 Kissing Crane stag-handled gunboat canoe would be produced, followed by Eight thousand IXL/Wostenholm green bone handled three-blade canoes in 1978. The peak would be reached in 1981, with an issue of 12,000 NKCA club knives, made by Queen. From that high point the NKCA membership declined, as did the number of annual club knives produced.
Part of the burnout of investing in club knives came from the massive growth of regional clubs, who each wanted their own club knives for their members. This demand for unique designs soon encompassed all the rare unusual patterns, and a rare vintage pattern that had not been reproduced by a club became almost impossible to find. Many remedies were attempted: changing handle materials, shifting blades around, adding blades to existing patterns, changing the size. But nothing worked as well as the early revival of long discontinued vintage patterns, as originated by Parker and the NKCA.
The plethora of club knives soon made it impossible to collect them all, a goal that many collectors tried when the club knife phenomena began. The oversupply stifled grown of value, and in many instances valued fell. The 1975 NKCA club knife that sold for $12, peaked at $600, and can now be purchased on the collector market for less than $300.
That is not to say that all club knives have not been good investments, provided the collector purchased them at issue price, but the trend has become one of valuing a club knife entirely based on the brand, the pattern and the handle material. A Case bone handled trapper on the resale market at about the same price across the board, no matter if it is a small club making 50 or a large club making 200.
Club knives do have their appeal—often unique or resurrected rare designs, popular handle materials, and usually etching on the blade that readily identifies the club, the year, and the quantity made. The irony is that the knives have rarely captured the enthusiasm of the vintage knife collectors, which was the original market for which the knives were intended.