E. Norman Flayderman, 84; Antique Arms Expert

Inscribing a copy of his famous Flayderman’s Guide.

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — E. Norman Flayderman was an astute collector of and expert in antique American arms, a meticulous historian, prolific author, avid hunter and generous with his knowledge — the superlatives could go on and on for this larger-than-life antique arms/militaria dealer who died May 23, leaving an equally large void in the antiques community that he was part of all his life.

He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and his children, John, Judy and Jean Ellen. A memorial service was recently conducted at Temple Bat Yam in Fort Lauderdale.

Born on July 11, 1928, in Boston, to Shirley and Benjamin Flayderman, Norm seemed destined for a life in the antiques trade. His father and grandfather were both dealers. He grew up in Kennebunk, Maine, where his father had an antiques business. At home, he was surrounded by antiques and collectibles and soon found his life’s passion: antique arms and militaria. After graduation from Boston University and military service, he began his firm, N. Flayderman & Co., Inc in 1952 and became renowned in the trade for swords, bayonets, Colts, Bowie knives, naval dirks and edged weapons.

A true patriot, he proudly served his country in three branches of the military: first in the US Navy until 1948, where he received training as an aerial photographer; later in the Air Force (discharged in 1959),. Much later, he served as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army of Connecticut with an honorary rank of lieutenant general.

Norm had a store in Greenwich, Conn., from 1958 to 1962 and then changed his business to a strictly catalog enterprise out of his Squash Hollow Estate in New Milford, Conn., from 1963 to 1986. He relocated in 1986 to the warmer climates of Fort Lauderdale.

He is perhaps best known to collectors for his landmark book, Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms…and Their Values, which is now in its ninth edition and for 33 years has been the “bible” of American arms collecting. A prolific and generous writer, at last count Norm had written forewords to no less than 41 books, as well as produced 119 consecutive editions of his business catalog from 1954 to 1998, a record run for an antiques dealer. He also authored Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders, Whales and Whaleman, Collecting Tomorrow’s Antiques Today and The Bowie Knife, Unsheathing an American Legend, his most recent book in 2004, which he dedicated to Ruthie, “the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

He was equally generous with his collections as he was with his knowledge and was an important lender to several major museums exhibitions throughout his life, including the Wadsworth Atheneum’s exhibition on Samuel Colt in 1960–61 and most recently, “The Bowie Knife: Icon of American Character” in 2011 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla., which the museum curated from its collection and “superlative specimens loaned by Bowie-knife authority E. Norman Flayderman.”

“Norm Flayderman was a valued mentor, colleague and friend since 1978. At that time, he came to Cody to appraise the Winchester arms collection. As a then-young museum curator, I was in awe of his encyclopedic knowledge and captivated by his good humor,” said Richard Rattenbury, curator of history, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. “Over 35 years later, those first impressions have only been confirmed and enriched. Always generous with his time and expertise, Norm read and critiqued several of my manuscripts over the years and graciously authored the foreword to two resulting books.

“Norm will be sorely missed by the arms collecting community worldwide. As antiquarian and author, he served as a model educator through his own publications, and his legacy to the arms fraternity will live far beyond his passing,” Rattenbury said.

Longtime friend and fellow antiques dealer Peter Tillou was already buying and selling guns as a college student at Ohio Wesleyan University. In 1953, at age 18, he traveled to a gun show in nearby Columbus, where he first met Norm and the two became fast friends. “I knew of him and always admired him. I was in awe. He was very much of a historian and even then he did a great arms catalog. Everybody around the world waited to read their subscription.”

Over the years, in between business deals among the two dealers, they shared hunting trips, with Norm taking Tillou on his first African hunting trip in the 1970s and Peter, an avid fly fisherman, returning the favor by taking Norm on his first fly fishing jaunt, in Iceland, for Atlantic salmon. Though a novice, Norm caught a salmon with just a few casts, and they brought it to the chef for dinner that night.

Tillou recalled Norm’s great sense of humor and his ability to take a joke. On the Iceland trip, Tillou and his buddies manage to convince Norm that to truly be accepted into the fishing ranks, he had to eat the fins. After some mild protest, Norm gamely chewed and chewed the sharp fins. When Tillou said he had to eat the tail too, Norm started chewing but asked, “Does everybody do this?” Laughter soon broke out among the friends and when Norm realized the joke was on him, he laughed right along. “What a sport; he was game for anything,” Tillou said. The two often traded playing tricks on each other on later trips.

Norm’s business acumen was second to none. He was highly regarded for his integrity where a dealer’s reputation was everything and deals were done on a handshake. Running a retail business, he put his clientele first, always.

“In business, he knew exactly who he was. He was an open book, you knew him, and you trusted him,” Tillou said.

Flayderman handled some of the greatest collections and is pictured in an article in Life magazine in the 1950s after he bought the Philip Medicus collection of more than 600 Civil War swords, which was the largest collection of its kind sold. It was an unheard of — and risky — move financially for the young antiquarian at the time but launched his career to new heights. The collection was eventually broken up and sold, but Flayderman first cataloged it and wrote the foreword for the book documenting the collection.

Other notable collections he handled included a collection of Lincoln documents and personal effects, Buffalo Bill Cody’s gun dating to when he was a scout for the railroad and dubbed by Cody as “the gun that never failed me,” the largest private collection of Kentucky rifles, the largest private collection of scrimshaw and an extensive collection of historical American Judaica dating back to Jamestown.

He was highly sought-after for his appraisal skills and knowledge from museums, organizations and private individuals. Among those he consulted for were the Smithsonian Institute, the National Museum of the US Marine Corps, the Colt Museum, the Winchester Museum, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and the West Point Museum.

“What was always apparent was Norm’s intelligence, his thirst for knowledge and his discipline in assembling the acquired knowledge so that others might gain from what he’d found,” said Dave Kleiner, Orrtanna, Penn., who used to visit Norm at his New Milford shop many times to sell him items. “When I was at the New Milford shop he allowed me to browse unattended through several floors of his inventory, a level of trust that was — and still is — very important to me.”

Visiting Norm in Florida to pick up a car in trade from him, Kleiner recalls Norm showing him the water view. “Ever the Navy man, Norm took me out on the balcony of his condo and showed me the signal mirror that he used to greet Navy ships as they sailed into the local port.  Norm said they didn’t always return his signal, but he was glad when they did!” Kleiner said.

Among his favorite gun shows was the annual “Hartford show” run by the New England Antique Arms Society.  In a tribute to Norm, the club is hereafter going to name its top award the Norm Flayderman Best of Show Award, Kleiner said. In 1992, Norm was honored to accept a Tiffany & Co. Colt single-action Army revolver custom made for him.

A dedicated outdoorsman, hunter and conservationist, he traveled the world extensively on safari and fishing trips on six continents, including the first hunting party allowed to Russia and Outer Mongolia, when those lands opened to Western hunters in the 1970s.

He will be deeply missed by his family and collectors alike. Ruth Flayderman and John and Judy will now manage the family business, upholding Norm’s legacy.

Far more than a collector, Norm was an unparalleled historian of antique American firearms and militaria and their connection to the American story. 

Norm Flayderman with Baron, circa 1982.

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