Posts Tagged aviation

History Lives in Auction Houses

30 November 2010

Auction houses display historic artifacts from the momumental to the mundane.  Spending time at auction is like being in a class room where everyone has come to participate.  You can learn much and often enjoy the simple emotion of amazement.  So many times I have seen things at auction that I dimly recall reading about.  Seeing a tangible object associated with an important person or event stirs the memory, engages the imagination and brings history to life.

I am not alone in the auction as history point of view.  Rosemary McKittrick writes about auctions at her website, Live Auction Talk.  She has been writing about art and antiques for over 20 years.  Her site archives over 800 articles covering a broad array of categories.   The depth of her experience and keen eye for the story behind the story shows clearly in her articles.  Typically they focus on a particular item that has come up for auction with a description of the historical personality who owned it.  Her research is very good and filled with educational nuggets of information.

Rosemary looks at auctions all over the world to find the story behind historic objects as they come up for sale at auction.    As she says:

“It could be Harry Houdini, Bob Dylan, Truman Capote, Amelia Earhart, Babe Ruth or William Randolph Hearst. I tell their stories through the handcuffs they’ve owned, books they’ve written, songs they’ve sung, planes they’ve flown, empires they’ve built and homeruns they’ve hit—all of which sold on the block.”

Her story on Baron Von Richthofen (The Red Baron) includes interesting details surrounding his untimely demise.  I’m a pilot and dedicated aviation history buff and had forgotten this story.  It’s nice to have it back in my memory bank.  One of his silver beakers commemorating a victory in aerial combat sold at auction for $28.000.

These articles contain some great research on auction prices realized.  Don’t pass up this kind of resource.  Rosemary gets it in one when she says, “When the bidding stops and the hammer falls, the value of an item is set. The buyer, not the seller, sets the price. This simple distinction cuts through all the chitchat about what art, antiques and collectibles are really worth.”

Go to Live Auction Talk and sign up for her free weekly subscription.  It includes an article on the 8 essentials of collections.  It will tell you exactly what needs to be at the forefront of your thinking every time you enter an auction house.  It’s brilliant stuff and lots of fun.

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Antiques Between the Pages and Beyond

21 September 2010

When the going gets tough the tough go to the library or the book store.  This has been my motto since childhood.  I was the kid who at the back of the school bus who was called variously Four Eyes, Professor or Book Worm.  I did not like the former.  The second one was acceptable but the latter was a point of pride.  I am an unapologetic reader and lover of books.  This part of my personality directed a portion of my antiques business.

People often say “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business.  However, for me business is personal.  My personality and interests drive me in any business I am involved in.  I love wood and have been a professional woodcarver, I am currently a cabinetmaker.  I worked as a courier for a medical laboratory for 20 years mostly because I love being on the road day after day.  The best part of being a paralegal which I hated because I couldn’t set my moral convictions aside was the opportunity to spend time in law libraries.

The digital age seems to threaten the printing press and bindery.  It may be that paper itself will become a forgotten artifact.   Maybe, I still haven’t seen the paperless office that used to be a sort of techie mantra.  A cashless society won’t surprise me but paper will hang around a little longer.  It is undeniable that print publishing is going to go through more than it’s fair share of changes.  But then it always has.

Format Follows Function

A glossy high quality specialty magazine or coffee table book has little resemblance to a parchment or papyrus manuscript of antiquity.  At bottom they perform the same function.   The sound that emerges from our mouths becomes a part of the past in the instant of being spoken.  it becomes Intangible but still virtual.  It’s preservation occurs not by speaking but by hearing.  Communicating with the written word developed because it froze the virtual and made it actual, able to be understood consistently by all who beheld it.  Well, that’s the theory.  Wars have been fought, fair ladies have been won,  divorces have begun, both evil and good men have risen and fallen,  fortunes won and lost all because of a few words on a document or in a book.  For a prime example read Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmerman telegram.

Publication has gone from simple scraps of paper to leather bound volumes to slick color covers in perfect bindings.  The various ways of bringing together a collection of pages has served every ages technologies and material resources.  The rate of distribution took a quantum leap courtesy of Mr. Gutenberg.  Lithography brought us into the graphics age.  Offset printing and photography just blew out all the stops.  It’s been a long road to get to the point where ink is not something that can spill and make a mess on your desk.  Ink is just another electronic idea.  Comic books or quantum mechanics, all have spun from analog to digital expression.

This Place in Time

Our chronological vantage point is advantageous to observers of history.  I appreciate the new technologies but still get a warm feeling when I hold a fat volume with calf binding.  Marbled endpapers are high art as are good quality engravings.  Once upon a time people appreciated the craftsmanship in good bindings.  I am not an expert in antiquarian books but I delighted in buying and selling them.  Books also fit my model of niche marketing.  Specialty subjects proved surprisingly profitable. I lucked into a couple of books on slide rules by Isaac Asimov.  They have great collectible value and if you find them in a boxed assortment at a flea market you are sure to get them for next to nothing.  Operations manuals for vintage aircraft have a lively trade amongst people who can afford to pay premium prices.

Of course everyone knows about the high value of first editions.  As a result you usual find them at inflated prices.  The only one I found memorable was in a box lot of children’s books I almost gave away.  It was a first edit ion Dr. Seuss, Cat In The Hat.  It went on eBay for $400.00.  Condition is vital in well known titles but I found that to be less true of books with an esoteric subject matter.  In some cases the content is as collectible as the paper and ink.  Historical data is a commodity unto itself.

Art and books have a long standing relation.  Pre-twentieth century books often have wonderful maps and engravings that are more valuable when separated from the book.  Because of this we have the practice of book-breaking.  Destroying a great old book just to get the prints out to sell individually is a terrible practice.

Books have always been my friends.  They are good company and are always well behaved.  The libraries I have known and the booksellers I have haunted are another subject which I will cover the next time I sit down to share my digitized thoughts with you.

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Vintage Postcards Transport The Viewer To Another Time

17 September 2010

Here is your trivia word for the day: Deltiology, the study and collection of postcards .  Not that it is trivial to the millions of post card collectors all over the world.  Haunt enough auctions buying up odd box lots and you are sure to end up with a collection of old postcards.  Do not take them lightly.  When they arrived on the scene in the 1860’s they were a rather utilitarian item.  They provided a cheap means of communicating a short, informal, message.  Think, the Twitter of the letter writing era.  Later on they became a virtual art and photography publishing medium.  Post cards became collectible in short order and the variety of images gave them an appeal to people with a wide variety of interests.

My favorite postcards have always been the transportation scenes, especially aircraft, ships and trains.  The amount of available material for collecting is unbelievable.  The early real photo postcards form an illustrated history that often includes events or vehicles not well recorded in books.

Cards featuring aviation related subjects may have photos of aviation pioneers or rare experimental aircraft that have become lost to history.

Back when eBay was in full swing in time to a vigorous economy they were a good source of regular sales in the $10.00 to $20.00 range with occasional “oh wow!” surprise bidding wars.  One of the beauties of postcards is that you often get duplications in lots purchased.  On those occasions I kept one copy for my personal collection and sold the other.  It can be a hobby that pays for itself.

Trains are another universal favorite.  They suited early photographers because they were good still subjects.  Quite a few early cards featured train wrecks.

Later on when cameras got better at stopping motion trains were often captured moving through dramatic scenery.   The railroad companies found postcards to be a handy advertising medium.  As a result a lot of railroad history is preserved for both scholars and railfans.

The hunt for old postcards is fun because so many people saved the cards informally. You find them in desk drawers and pigeonholes, in shoe boxes and coffee cans. They appear to have been the number one bookmark of all time.  They often come as part of a stack of paper items perhaps meant to be scrapbook material. You can find some good old advertising items, trade cards, tobacco cards, or small engravings.

It seems like printed cards of all types become handy items to trade.  Barter and baseball cards is practically a rite of passage for American children.  The value of post cards varies widely, naturally, the older the better. Condition counts a lot. It’s not unusual to have messages written on the front of early cards as the postal regulations reserved the back of the card for addresses only.  Tears and bends are what really downgrade a card.

When I started selling collectibles postcards came on to my radar screen along with vintage photographs.  They go hand-in-hand.  So much history was preserved at the same time that it was made accessible to the public.  We take that aspect for granted in the internet age.  At the time postcards were invented America was a largely rural society.  Radio was largely theoretical and the modern marvel of the day in personal transportation was the bicycle; another worthy topic for a post card collection.  You have the advantage to explore a century and more of our world unfolding before you in a handy format that is very user friendly.  Hitch a ride on history and be transported.

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Flying High With Aviation Collectibles

2 September 2010

Human powered flight encompasses a large area of collecting interest.  Aviation is equal parts technology and romance.  It occupies a small slice of the span of human history but is a defining element of the modern world.  Airplanes fascinated me as a kid who spent many hours in libraries.  I poured over all the books that showed airplanes and explained how they worked.  The magazine racks held Model Airplane News magazine.  I was one of those kids who hung on the airport fence and watched the planes take off.  After high school I got distracted by popular culture but came back to my earlier interests as I got settled into a steady job and home ownership.  I put the necessary time and money into getting a private pilot’s license which was one of the highlights of my life.  Virtually every aspect of Flying, it’s history and continuing development, civilian, military or commercial is part of an ongoing love affair..

The kind of feeling I grew up with for aviation is what makes a collector tick.  A lot of people have that feeling for automobiles, trains, dogs, horses, stamps, coins, you name it.  I have the same thing for sailboats, hence my other blog: Seaward Adventures.  As a dealer in collectible items, buying and selling to make a profit was the main consideration.  Aviation was one of the few areas I collected for myself.  My pride and joy was an assembly of aviator’s wing badges.

When I first started selling collectibles I naturally gravitated toward items that interested me personally.  My interests payed off surprisingly well.  I had stumbled onto the formula that became my business model.  Artifacts that relate to an activity engaged in by well educated people with a passion for the activity and a healthy income to support the activity equals profitability.  Lets face it you don’t see any poor people climbing into a Cessna 172 to go for a hundred dollar hamburger.

The aviation demographic was grown by WWII and the postwar economic growth that allowed many Americans to pursue their personal dreams. My customers were frequently people with good stories to tell.  I always enjoy some good hangar talk which is why my favorite podcast is Uncontrolled Airspace.  Jack, Jeb, Dave and the various other contributors to the podcast are entertaining and educational in a way that makes a pilot feel connected with the flying community.

Some interesting items I have handled in my business or personal collection are:  Pilot’s operating handbooks for various vintage aircraft, early variations on the E6B flight computer, parts for Jacob’s radial engines,  early pilot’s goggles and way too many other items to remember.  I divested myself of all those collections.  I still dabble.  I have a few items on eBay right now.   A recently acquired WWII item was the subject of a previous Adventures in antiquing post.  You may view it at http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=220663480133.

I find that people have fond memories of the aircraft they flew once upon a time.  The old sales literature with full color photos of prosperous young folks traveling cross country on business and pleasure have been good sellers.  I three examples on eBay right now.  See the Vintage Beech Sierra Sales Brochure 1973.

Sales have slowed down a bit because eBay is not a happening place lately.  Aviation itself is feeling the effects of the economic downturn.  Certainly some people will slow down their collecting as they tighten their budget.  Ultimately what sustains the market is passion.  Pin your business model on that

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WWII, the Home Front Tells a New Story

26 May 2010

I got into the antiques and collectibles business to do more than just sell stuff.  I’m not even a very good salesman.  I like the cash to flow but I’m also very interested in the things I sell.  If nothing deeper mattered and I was a good closer I would sell insurance.  There’s more money in it.  The historian in me analyzes my trade goods as artifacts.  Sometimes I get a priceless glimpse into the past.

Last Saturday I bought a book at a local antique shop and put it on eBay.  Click here to see. While scanning the photographic pages I detected a distinct slant to the presentation.  It’s a WWII era photographic booklet, We Keep e’m Flying.  It shows life for the men and women at the Naval Air Technical Training Center, Memphis, Tennessee. The 44 pages are replete with black and white images of the camp and it’s happy, smiling personnel.  Besides showing training scenes with guns and airplanes there is a heavy emphasis on recreational activities  and social life. You would hardly know there was a war going on.

I’ve handled a number of the yearbooks published for various military aviation training bases.  They tell a story of a generation of Americans who took loyalty to their country seriously.  The patriotism is openly expressed.  The subtext is often more telling.  In case you doubt that society has changed since the 1940’s look at  books, magazines and films the government published for consumption on the home front.  Some call it propaganda some call it public relations but that flavor is present as a matter of intent.

Equality blossoms in the war effort.

We all know about Rosie the Riveter.  She began as wartime propaganda and letter became a feminist folk hero.  In this book there are a surprising number of women shown  working along side of men, handling mechanics duties and training in the same ways.  One wonders if the emphasis was overstated compared to the reality.  The summer camp flavor of the piece stands out in contrast to the realities of life in a combat zone.

I recently sold a yearbook for a pilot training base in Kansas.  The ranks of photos of eager young cadets showed only Caucasian faces except for one training squadron that was all black.  We Keep ’em Flying presents a parade of fresh white faces except for the photo of the base laundry.  Here young black women wield irons as they press uniforms.  A solitary black male sweeps the floor.  It seems a sad note in the cheery picture.  It probably went unnoticed in 1945.  Now it leaps out and grabs our attention.

I do not mean to be too critical of the people of the time, context matters.  After all, out of the same crucible of war and societal upheaval came the Tuskegee Airmen.  No reasonable person questions the value of their contribution or denies their sacrifice.  Valor has no color or gender.

We all live in the context of our times.  What we do today may be judged differently tomorrow.  More than ever our lives are recorded for the future to see.  When our children look at us smiling back in artificial images will they only see the movie and not get the message?

The contrast shows behind the scenes

A collector is motivated by appreciation of  his acquisitions to value them for meaning as well as worth.  As dealers we tend to think of the bottom line.  The artifacts we engage with contribute to our worldview as we examine their place in our culture.  To paraphrase a  navy recruiting slogan: It’s more than a job, it’s a  classroom.

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