FOR SALE: AERIAL TRENCH ART

Flight Journal - - FLYING JACKETS -

Try to pic­ture this: A pi­lot is step­ping out of his Mus­tang, gun smoke streaks the wings (in­di­cat­ing an ex­cit­ing flight), and he’s wear­ing a thick red plaid wool jacket and golf­ing pants. What’s wrong with this pic­ture? Ev­ery­thing! Mil­i­tary pi­lots of old wore leather jack­ets. Pe­riod! And many mil­i­tary pi­lots still do to­day. There’s a rea­son that there is a ready mar­ket for mod­ern repli­cas of those jack­ets. It’s the same rea­son avi­a­tor sun­glasses out­sell all oth­ers: They have that “look,” and the wearer is hop­ing some will be­lieve he or she earned that look. It is the hero-by-as­so­ci­a­tion syn­drome.

That be­ing said, any­one who sees a real avi­a­tor’s jacket that has ac­tu­ally seen com­bat in­stantly re­al­izes that the wear and patina that give it so much char­ac­ter make it a to­tally dif­fer­ent, unique kind of gar­ment. It’s more than a jacket. It’s a his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­fact in­fused with the DNA of a war­rior who, in times long gone, risked it all in de­fense of free­dom. When ac­tu­ally touch­ing such a gar­ment, most will feel some­thing emo­tional stir in­side them. This is his­tory at our fin­ger­tips. And that is the cen­tral theme to the cur­rent in­tense in­ter­est in jack­ets and mil­i­tary ar­ti­facts, which has made In­ter­na­tional Mil­i­tary An­tiques (IMA) the 800-pound go­rilla in the mil­i­tary-mem­o­ra­bilia mar­ket. That and the fact that the Cran­mers—Alex the son and Chris­tian the fa­ther—have taken the con­cept of sell­ing his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­facts out of the dark, musty, mu­se­um­like cor­ner store and splashed it across the Web in a way that would make Ama­zon (and maybe P. T. Bar­num) proud.

IMA’s im­mense head­quar­ters/ware­house, lo­cated in Gil­lette, New Jersey, is jammed to the rafters with ev­ery­thing from 17th-cen­tury can­nons to B-17 con­trol yokes. To its pub­lic, how­ever, IMA’s “home” is ac­tu­ally on the Web. It is a vir­tual com­pany. It is there that they are the world’s largest pur­veyor of all types of mil­i­tary good­ies with the ex­otic, painted fly­ing jack­ets of WW II be­ing one of its spe­cial­ties.

Alex Cran­mer says, “Dad started the busi­ness in 1981, so ba­si­cally I’ve been liv­ing in a mu­seum for my en­tire life, which has been enor­mous fun. We got on the Web in 2004 and have tried to keep up with all of the very lat­est tech­niques and trends, which has made the his­tory we sell avail­able world­wide with the click of a key. And some­times we see sales that amaze even us. We sold a $50,000 D-Day land­ing-craft flag and a $35,000 pair of ‘Duck’s Foot’ pis­tols when the buy­ers just clicked the ‘add to cart’ but­ton as if they were buy­ing a $30 sur­plus hel­met. No calls, no ques­tions. Part of that is be­cause the dozens of high-qual­ity pho­tos that ac­com­pany each item let the buyer pe­ruse the item as if it were ac­tu­ally in their hands.

“At the very begin­ning,” he says, “Dad was sell­ing through var­i­ous hard-copy out­lets like Shot­gun News, and much of what we were sell­ing through the ’90s was more or less ex­otic mil­i­tary sur­plus from al­most ev­ery coun­try in the world. How­ever, as we got deeper into e-com­merce, it be­came ap­par­ent that there was a large mar­ket for one-of-a-kind ar­ti­facts, like the jack­ets.

“We bought our first painted WW II jacket, an A-2, at a show in 2010 and paid what we thought was an ou­tra­geous amount. We both sim­ply liked it and agreed we’d prob­a­bly have it for­ever (which didn’t dis­tress us at all) and never get our money back. Then, we put it on the Web, sold it in about a week, and nearly dou­bled our money. From that point on, we be­gan tak­ing one-of-a-kind mil­i­tary items, es­pe­cially the jack­ets, more se­ri­ously.”

Alex says the sources for their jack­ets vary. They at­tend the big­ger mil­i­taria shows and he says they “go with a large amount of cash and a truck, and are there strictly to buy.” The longer they’ve been in busi­ness, how­ever, the more they are be­ing con­tacted by in­di­vid­u­als, of­ten those seek­ing to get rid of “Dad’s col­lec­tion of stuff.” In­creas­ingly, he says, “We’re be­ing asked to buy back some­thing we sold a decade or so ago and the owner has ei­ther passed on or has reached the point in life where he no longer has in­ter­est in, or room for, his col­lec­tion.”

But it’s not just the jacket or the watch or the what­ever they are look­ing for. Alex says, “When­ever pos­si­ble, we go out of our way to get the ar­ti­fact’s story from the owner. How­ever, with just the ser­vice­man’s name and his airplane’s name, we can re­search both un­til we quite of­ten come up with sur­pris­ing in­for­ma­tion or pho­tos to go with the jacket.

“In the last cou­ple of years,” he says, “we’re do­ing more and more ‘group­ings’ in which the jacket may be com­bined with the air­man’s uni­form jacket and maybe some pho­tos of his airplane and crew. Ev­ery one of the col­lec­tions is dif­fer­ent.”

The IMA web­site is es­sen­tially a vir­tual mu­seum in which ev­ery­thing is for sale and a ton of in­for­ma­tion is in­cluded for each item. It’s an ed­u­ca­tional (and tempt­ing) web­site. Visit them at ima-usa.com.

Alex Cran­mer and his fa­ther, Chris­tian Cran­mer, pre­side over one of the most unique mem­o­ra­bilia busi­nesses in the world.

If this jacket could only talk! Imag­ine sur­viv­ing 44 mis­sions. (Photo cour­tesy of In­ter­na­tional Mil­i­tary An­tiques)

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