“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” says Myron Johns, managing director of a New York-based investment firm, of the moment he discovered a jet-engine prototype in Mantiques Modern, Manhattan. Thought to be from the late 1950s, when jet-combustion engines were being tested for use in civil aviation, the 30cm-tall model is a fascinating combination of metals and moving parts – a tricolour sunburst of aluminium, brass and titanium. It now sits on a bookshelf in Johns’ sitting room among other rare aeronautical pieces amassed over the years, from cockpit clocks to an aeroplane control panel.
Johns is far from alone in his passion for aviation; in the past decade increasing numbers of collectors are coveting their own bold, sculptural pieces of history, from perfectly balanced mahogany propellers to high-shine ejection seats. Simon Khachadourian, founder of Kensington-based dealership the Pullman Gallery, which specialises in late 19th- and early 20th-century collectables, credits the internet with the surge in interest. “Before, if you wanted to collect anything specialised, you had to really put in the legwork at fairs and shows,” he explains. “Now it’s much easier to see what’s available online, so more and more people have become fascinated.” Prices have rocketed accordingly in the same period – some dealers are reporting tenfold rises for the very best examples.
Often, a collector’s interest originates in childhood – perhaps from taking a flight and being allowed to go and see the pilot in the cockpit surrounded by switches and dials. In the case of restaurateur and antiques collector Brian Stein, an interest was sparked when his uncle bought him a toy plane. Stein now owns a huge 1911 four-blade propeller from a Vickers Vimy – the first aircraft to fly nonstop over the Atlantic. He bought it for £2,600 more than 20 years ago and installed it as a ceiling fan in his Fulham restaurant, PJ’s.
“Aviation pieces appeal to men’s fascination with machines and the way things work, while tapping into nostalgia for the golden age of aviation,” says Tim Bent, whose London-based treasure trove, Bentleys, specialises in dynamic, masculine antiques and vintage rarities. His clients sometimes display the pieces in eccentric and high-impact ways: Bent recently sold an ejection seat from a Vulcan RAF bomber to interior designers Jimmie Martin & McCoy, who installed it in the offices of a hedgefund manager. They had been briefed to mount it on a pedestal with a plaque that read: “Know how to get out before you get in.” The high-shine piece dominates the boardroom – menacingly.
Anyone with similarly muscular tastes should look to Bentleys, which currently stocks a Buccaneer ejection seat (about £12,500), polished to a shine, and a Phantom ejection seat in black and green (about £17,500) with the original paintwork, harness and parachute. Chelsea-based Hatchwell Antiques also offers a knockout selection of historically important items of aeronautica, including a 1968 Canberra ejection seat and one that was fitted to a c1955 RAF Gloster Javelin jet fighter, both polished to a mirror finish and priced from £5,000.
As with any collectables, prices for aeronautica are higher when pieces are rare, have historical significance and are in great condition. Hatchwell is offering a 2.5m-diameter titanium turbofan from a 1970 Rolls-Royce RB211 engine for the princely sum of £40,000. This pioneering jet engine was so costly to make, it no doubt contributed to Rolls-Royce’s 1971 declaration of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, a pair of laminated-spruce 1975 Sitka wind-tunnel fans – each more than 3m tall and weighing more than 227kg – are selling for about £30,000. They are from the high-speed wind tunnels at the Nasa Langley Research Center in Virginia, where the US government tested aircraft and aeronautical equipment during the Cold War. “Our customers tend to be freethinkers interested in fun and nostalgia,” says Allan Hatchwell, the founder of Hatchwell Antiques and a member of the Association of Art & Antiques Dealers. “They are the sort of people who already own classic cars, yachts and jets.”
As collecting goes, aviation memorabilia is a high-maintenance pursuit. “You need space for these things,” says Bent. “Whether it’s a jet engine or an ejection seat, most pieces are absolutely huge. We also tend to find that our customers’ wives aren’t so keen – often the items don’t make it out of studies and offices and into sitting rooms and other living spaces.” Even with propellers – perhaps the most straightforward objects to own as they can be hung on a wall – a change in circumstances can mean saying au revoir to a cherished piece, as London-based company director Ivan Dubovsky knows only too well. “My 1.5m propeller used to take pride of place above the fireplace in the sitting room,” he explains, “but when children came along and we moved house it had to go into the attic. I will rehang it as soon as I can. I fly a ridiculous amount for work, and yet I still feel excitement every time I head to the airport. For me, the propeller is not only a beautiful object, it’s also an anchor for very pleasant memories.”
There are thousands of propellers on the market at any one time, but the value of them varies wildly depending on provenance. According to Stephen Maycock, a consultant at Bonhams, “Propellers command the highest prices when they have original details such as stamps and paintwork, so a shabby, battered and battle-scarred prop is better than one that has been sanded down and refurbished.”
Other specialist dealers argue that their design-conscious clients would always prefer to have a sleek “sculpture” on the wall rather than a non-renovated, battered piece. At the moment, Hatchwell is selling just such an art piece – a high-shine paddle-top propeller from the famous 1940s Mosquito fighter plane (about £5,040). The Pullman Gallery, on the other hand, believes it has a rare propeller that answers the demands of both aesthetics and provenance: a 1917 wooden example from an SE-5A First World War biplane fighter aircraft in excellent shape and with the original stamps (about £11,400). “I haven’t found an example in such good condition for at least five years,” says Khachadourian. “The knowledge that 96 years ago it was actually spinning around high above the battlefields of France really adds to the romance.”
Although diehard collectors will often be interested in provenance above all else, for a growing number of design-focused dealers and buyers interest in aviation memorabilia is chiefly aesthetic. Michigan-based 1stdibs dealer Trilogy Antiques & Design, which specialises in industrial, machine-age furniture, has a sculptural 1950s aluminium adjustable-height aircraft stool ($1,200) and a vintage aluminium nose cone ($1,100). “There has been such a surge in interest in industrial and metal design elements recently that I am now paying five times more to buy machine-age pieces than five or 10 years ago. I’m sure that aviation pieces have benefited from this,” says dealer Brandon Nelson. Of the nose cone, which is about 69cm long, hollow and light, and likely to be used as “a sculptural element on a table”, he says: “To be honest, we’re not even sure what plane it came from. Our interest is in the design.”
Meanwhile, Mantiques Modern, an emporium devoted to modern and industrial delights in Chelsea, Manhattan, is selling a 1930s biplane tail-rudder ($1,800). It is mounted on a black iron stand and has its original hand-painted bright-yellow call sign. “We love it as an object, as sculpture,” says owner Cory Margolis. “It’s fascinating to see how the canvas is stretched over the wood, just like in a painting.” Mantiques Modern takes a “found art” approach to aeronautica, avoiding making modifications where possible “to keep the integrity of the pieces”. That said, “we do have one modified piece – a coffee table made from the engine of a 1930s eight-cylinder Jacobs aircraft [about $36,000], which is something of a labour of love, as it takes so many hours to make. But otherwise, modifications can feel a bit goofy,” he adds.
Whether interest is aesthetic, historic or both, one thing is certain: great pieces of aviation memorabilia offer investment potential plus a dash of adventure, excitement and romance. As Johns explains, “We all want to diversify our portfolios. We want to buy things that will not only appreciate in value but will offer us a chance to share our interests with our children one day.” So what are his most wanted items? The businessman is almost breathless as he reels off his wish list, ending with an aerial spy camera. "This is the holy grail. I’ve never been lucky enough to see one in person, but the pictures look amazing. It would be an incredibly cool thing to have.”