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Cashing in on collectibles: Air Force treasures abound; you just need to know where to look

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
File photo
File photo

These "Dallas Wings" are one of the most sought after Air Force collectible items. An authenticated set can easily sell for $2,000, while reproductions sell for around $200.

Somewhere out there, on a shelf in a dark closet is an old cigar box that belonged to dad or grandpa. In it are the usual small personal items collected over a lifetime: a pocket knife, perhaps a brass button or two that never got sewn back on a jacket, a couple of old baseball cards and a Boy Scout compass. There might be a fraternal ring, a picture or two from a long-past fishing trip and down in the bottom there are some curious-looking military insignia.

One appears to be made of leather, carefully hand painted. A bit cracked and weathered, it looks more like a piece of artwork than something likely to be stitched onto a jacket. Little does anyone realize that the painted piece of cowhide dates to WWI and is one of the most prized items among military insignia collectors. It could be worth hundreds of dollars, depending on rarity and condition, says Jerome Polder, a curator with the Air Force Museum, located at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio.

Mr. Polder oversees some 80,000 items at the museum, but he says that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what's stashed away in closets across the country and world. That means military collectors have a rich mine from which to explore and perhaps no specialty is more prevalent than Air Force insignia.

"It's a fascination and romance with flight," theorizes Mr. Polder, who notes not only are there Air Force insignia collectors, but specialists within the Air Force memorabilia world who focus only on certain types of items, such as wings, coins, medals and wing insignia. "It's amazing how many different specialties there are."

Mr. Polder said the Internet has caused an explosion of collecting Air Force items. Collecting groups have gone online, where connections are made and items are bought and sold. Ebay has become a primary source and never in history has the collector had so much power at their fingertips when it comes to locating the missing pieces of their personal collections.

But Mr. Polder adds the power of the net must be tempered with good sense and caution.

"It's buyer beware," he said. "There are a lot of frauds out there."

Even those who are skilled at identifying military collectibles are sometimes fooled. Buying online is a great way to build an Air Force insignia collection, especially for those who do not live near major cities where collector shows often are held. But it is hard to beat being able to see and hold the item, said Mr. Polder.

That's where regional collecting shows come in. Many organized or sanctioned by the American Society of Military Insignia Collectors, these shows pop up around the major metropolitan areas. This part of Florida is great because Tampa and Orlando are popular places for groups to gather.

"If the items are in a show and with so many experts around, it isn't likely a fake (piece of memorabilia or insignia) is likely to go unnoticed," said Mr. Polder.

Garage sales, estate sales, flea markets and trinket shops are other places to make potential finds, he said. Buy or check out books that catalog the types of items you are interested in and learn what to look for, he advises.

So what is the Holy Grail of Air Force collectible insignia? That depends on whom you ask, said Mr. Holder, but a particularly prized item is what is known as "Dallas Wings" from WWI.

The issued wings of the day were silver but attached to a backing, and were difficult to polish and keep clean. A jeweler in Dallas, Texas got the idea of producing a better set, with detachable wings that came off in two pieces for easy polishing. That, coupled with the high quality only a jeweler could achieve, the Dallas Wings were "the most beautiful and finely crafted" ever, said Mr. Polder.

The problem, at least officially, was they were not authorized. Over the years, especially among fliers, unauthorized insignia has been common and even today it is no unusual to see unauthorized insignia on flight suits, said Mr. Polder. That's been a boon to collectors, as unauthorized generally means there are less in circulation. Fewer in existence means higher value. Dallas Wings in good condition can fetch $2,000 or more. Collectors of Air Force insignia always are on the lookout for them.

Don Sexton, president of ASMIC, said Air Force collectors should be seeking such rarities as unauthorized patches and insignia, including improvised Vietnam era insignia such as some made of discarded beer cans. Selling for 50 cents after the war, they now bring $40 or more. Collectors with an eye toward the future may want to snatch up unauthorized patches or insignia from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

An ultimate Air Force find would be an original 509th Bomb Group patch. The patch worn by the group that delivered the atom bomb on Japan is worth around $500, said Mr. Sexton, who in all his years collecting has never seen a real 509 patch. Mr. Sexton said Air Force Thunderbird patches are valuable, as they are so tightly controlled by the Air Force and the precision flying team itself.

Other items of Air Force interest are leather flight jackets. Mr. Polder said about 10 years ago the Japanese took a sudden interest in WWI and WWII leather jackets, driving the price up. The craze has subsided, bringing prices back down, but since desirability for certain items runs in cycles, buying when the heat is off is a way collectors can make out the next time interest is ratcheted up by the market.

Other specialties within Air Force collecting are model airplanes. Of particular interest are die cast metal models produced by plane manufacturers in WWII. Some were made of wood but all eventually gave way to cheaper, black plastic, which now make up most of the models in existence.

Medals, particularly if there is documented history about the recipient, are another specialty. In the case of any collectible, Mr. Polder said if the person to whom it belonged can be verified, it generally increases the value, sometimes as much as five times, even more if the person was famous.

Those interested in collecting insignia and patches from the Air Force or from any branch, would do well to join the ASMIC or at least check out its web site at http://www.asmic.org, said Mr. Sexton. The group is dedicated to fair trading and has helped many people avoid frauds through an authentication service and a quarterly newsletter. Dues are $28 per year.



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