New York - Flight is fascinating – for all people of all ages - even in times such as these. When we see an airplane overhead, we often think of exotic travel to far-away places, especially as many of us are forced to continue hunkering down due to Covid 19 travel restrictions. We are reminded of our favorite vacation, or that adventure we’re still planning. Even when we understand the physics and mechanics behind flying, there is still a mystery surrounding the airplane. It is this fascination - and subsequent associations - that can often make the acquisition of vintage and retro aviation collectibles such an exciting and profitable pursuit for many of today's collectors and dealers.
In years past, aviation related items had for the most part been the domain of a niche group of buyer's and sellers, but today that interest has begun to spread more broadly across the decorative arts spectrum, with a contingency of mainstream dealers taking note of the value in adding such items to their inventory or collection. While there is still currently plenty of available stock to choose from, some antique and vintage dealers are already sounding off on rising prices and "buy-it-now" auction results that show a dramatic uptick in overall demand (and cost) for anything aviation related.
Mankind has only been flying for a little over 100 years, making true aviation antiques (by the strictest definition) few and far between. Luckily, the public took to flying like the proverbial duck to water, and an industry arose which gave us a plethora of interesting vintage and contemporary collectibles. In fact, there is hardly an area of aviation collecting that has not experienced a surge in growth over the last few years when compared against more mainstream collectibles. Whether this is due in part to the public's romanticized association with the glory days of flying, when passengers dressed in suits, and leg-room was ample (regardless of seating-class), or because people just seemed a bit more civilized when it came to travel back then, there is no question that today's vintage buyers have become completely enamored by the allure of yesteryear's aviation collectibles, as evidenced by the quickly escalating (and often realized) auction prices for many of these items.
While the collecting of actual airplanes is best left to Hollywood superstars and James Bond villains, model and toy planes were made by just about every manufacturer in the world. Wooden, tinplate, and die-cast metal examples can be found, with the older models of course commanding the highest prices. As always, condition is key, as the propellers on small toys were easily bent or broken. It will be interesting to see if advances in 3D printing will allow for affordable restoration of these pieces as current prices and valuations continue to rise - even for modest examples.
For those who prefer ephemera (printed matter), there are no limits to the collectables on offer. The 50’s and 60’s were the glamour days of airline travel, and posters, maps, and advertising materials of the time boast fantastic graphics and colors (think “Mad Men” meet “Catch Me If You Can”). The names of the airlines and the advertised destinations are what dictate the prices here, with Pan Am, TWA, and BOAC (the forerunner of British Airways) leading the pack. With popularity, however, have also come the reprints and fakes, so be sure you’ve got a reputable source when buying.
Something larger perhaps? For fans of the industrial look, or those furnishing a “Man Cave,” an aircraft propeller mounted to the wall can give the room its final touch. Remember; real propellers are only curved (“cambered”) on the front side of the blades, the backs are flat. Additionally, any maker’s logos or stickers would have been printed along the blade – not across. Cheap reproductions abound, and they often get these details wrong. I’ve also seen airplane seats used in home theaters, catering trollies converted to mobile bars, and entire wings upcycled to conference room tables. With some imagination, the possibilities are endless.
So far, we’ve only talked about the rising interest in airline and travel collectibles. Naturally, there is also military aviation, from its early start in WWI right up to the present day. Collectibles in this area include: uniforms and medals, aircraft parts (sometimes showing battle damage), pilot handbooks and logbooks, as well as all manner of personal equipment. As with all militaria, you want a complete history if possible – the where and when are almost as important as the objects themselves.
In short, there are collectors for and of all things airline and aviation-related. I’ve met collectors of; pilots’ wings, baggage tags, cockpit instruments (clocks being the most popular), stewardess’ hats, propellers, safety instruction cards, route maps, radio sets, airline glassware and cutlery, posters and advertising, and everything in between. And yes, there is even a serious group who collect airsickness bags (unused, of course!)
Air travel today may not be the glamorous adventure it once was on the Pan Am Clippers, but we all want it to be - especially during today's unsettling times. However, adding that aviation collectible to a room or a display cabinet may be just what's needed to bring back a touch of glamour to one's collection, or perhaps some added top-shelf inventory value to one's shop. Regardless of which direction you choose however, there's little question that this is one area of today's decorative arts field that has truly taken off...
Mr. Wilkins is an honors graduate of the Institute, splitting his time between Europe & Canada. A contributing columnist on all things MCM and aviation related, he operates "VintageBarn und Aeronautika Antik" online, and is also a recognized specialist in the field of German ceramics.
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