FOR SALE: AERIAL TRENCH ART
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)