Pick an investment that's sure to take off

Man's ongoing love affair with aviation makes aeronautica a top-flight choice, says Nick Clayton

Although travelling by air can feel about as glamorous as catching a bus, the general fascination with the romance of flying remains surprisingly undimmed. Thousands of people collect items of so-called "aeronautica", anything from complete aeroplanes to sick bags, many of which bear the insignia of airlines that have long since disappeared.

Although travelling by air can feel about as glamorous as catching a bus, the general fascination with the romance of flying remains surprisingly undimmed. Thousands of people collect items of so-called "aeronautica", anything from complete aeroplanes to sick bags, many of which bear the insignia of airlines that have long since disappeared.

If anybody thought interest in flight was on the wane, they only had to look at the massive crowds at any event connected with the retiral of Concorde from service and the huge prices paid for anything associated with the supersonic passenger jet. This followed the centenary of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight in September.

Before that, interest in Second World War aeronautica had been driven high by the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Battle of Britain. And it is not just the actual war in the air that has grabbed the attention of collect- ors, there is an enthusiastic trade in items associated with the eponymous 1969 film as well.

"Aeronautica covers an enormously wide area including anything to do with aviation, not just planes, but balloons and airships as well," says Toby Wilson, head of the transport-related memorabilia department at Bonhams auctioneers.

"If you pick an area within aviation, there should be stuff of interest to suit any budget."

He divides the history of aviation into a series of periods starting with the pioneering era at the start of the 20th century. "Then everything becomes military with the First World War and anything from then is, of course, very collectible."

It is, however, a period when collectors have to be wary. One of the most famous aircraft of the war, for instance, was the Fokker triplane flown by Von Richthofen, the "Red Baron". Contemporary photographs show it stripped of fabric after he was shot down in 1918. "I would expect to see substantial source material proving that this type of thing was genuine," says Mr Wilson.

"Then we come to the 1920s and 1930s, which is really the Golden Age of aviation when there were hundreds of records broken and the association with famous names such as Amy Johnson and Charles Lindbergh," he says.

There are, he says, pieces of cloth taken from Lindbergh's plane, the Spirit of St Louis, after it was the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, which are fetching £4,000 to £5,000 for a four-inch square of material. In 1999 one of the two pieces of mail carried by Lindbergh on that trip was sold at auction for $155,000. In 1977, on the 50th anniversary of the flight, it had fetched $35,000.

Provenance is key to the value of items associated with individuals and events, something which is not always easy as souvenir hunters do not necessarily have proof of origin at the front of their minds.

But, the Spirit of St Louis fabric comes from a relative of the manager of Le Bourget field, near Paris, where Lindbergh landed. The cloth was replaced in the course of repairs because it was damaged.

The romance of flight has attracted a number of artists. A painting from 1950 by Terence Cuneo of Geoffrey De Havilland, founder of the aircraft company of the same name, taking off in 1909, fetched a very respectable £8,500 at auction last year.

Aircraft have always been popular subjects for model-makers and these can prove a sound and attractive investment. Even a rubber-band powered "Interceptor Fighter" from the 1930s went for £138 last year at Bonhams.

Aviation was also part of the spirit of the age in the inter-war years and had a widespread influence on the design of many objects. Simon Khachadourian, director of London's Pullman Gallery and author of The Cocktail Shaker, explains: "Joseph Henckels of Dusseldorf started off by making a silver Zeppelin [cocktail shaker] in 1925. This evolved into a stylised aircraft. The wings were drinks flasks, the undercarriage mixing spoons and the body held 18 to 20 drinks components.

"They're very scarce in complete condition. There's a nine-inch wingspan version, which I've seen about four or five times in 24 years, and will sell for about £10,000. I've seen the 12-inch version three times. That went most recently for £14,800 at auction. And there's a unique 18-inch model that was made for an exhibition in 1928 and I paid a record £50,000 for that at auction."

At the end of the 1930s the cocktail shaker companies moved on to manufacturing shell casings. The Second World War attracts a different type of collector. "You should look for anything signed by 'The Few', even commemorative items signed by the surviving pilots after the war are worth having," says Mr Wilson.

It is also a period that attracts enthusiasts, not least because many of the items were relatively affordable. "You could buy a Spitfire for £25 at the end of the war, fully fuelled and ready to go. Now you'd have to pay at least a million and I expect to hear of the first being sold for £2m very soon," says Andy Saunders who runs the twice-yearly Shoreham Aeromart, Europe's largest event for collectors of aeronautica.

Of course, even at £25 most collectors would not have room for a full-sized fighter plane. There is, however, a healthy trade in parts. Particularly popular are control column tops, which are unique to each type of aircraft and are especially evocative as they were the pilots' point of contact with the plane and sometimes include the firing mechanism. They can be bought for around £300.

There are also keen collectors of aircraft dials. They are items, however, that should be treated with care. Some displays emit high levels of radiation, so they are not best left in a bedroom.

But not all aeronautica is only of interest to engineers and historians "Some of the items associated with planes are things of beauty in their own right," Mr Saunders says. "First World War propellers were made of mahogany and often tipped with brass. You can still find them for around £500, although the price depends on condition and provenance."

With the price of Second World War memorabilia increasing so fast, it is tempting to start digging up one of the many wrecks that are buried, particularly across the south of England. Beware: not only is this illegal without permission from the RAF, but there remains a danger from unexploded ordinance.

Mr Saunders' recommendation to anybody considering aeronautica as an investment is to focus on an iconic plane such as the Spitfire. "Items associated with other aircraft have increased in value over time, but they've gone up and down. Anything to do with the Spitfire has never dipped in price."

The only post-war aircraft to enjoy similar status is Concorde. Some experts, including Mr Saunders, believe memorabilia from the supersonic passenger jet has been massively overvalued, creating a bubble that is bound to burst. Others point out that the high prices paid last year were at charity auctions and that the market price now is sustainable and the basis of a sound investment.

Concorde Collectables, for example, is looking for offers of more than £125,000 for a nose cone on its website. Two of these instantly-recognisable, 13-foot high, pieces of engineering sold for more than £300,000 each last November. The same website has a full-scale 72-foot replica of the plane, a snip at just £450,000. You will, however, have the satisfaction of knowing that it almost certainly cost more than that to build.

There are also more affordable items such as training manuals from the 1970s which cost a few hundred pounds each, sterling silver luggage tags given to VIPs are £45, and air vents are £95. These do seem likely to grow in value over time as they exist in limited numbers and no more will be made.

From the first powered flight to the end of Concorde exactly 100 years later, few industries can have created so much associated ephemera. And it is a certainty that somebody, somewhere is collecting it.

'It's the engineering side I'm most interested in'

Two events sparked off Guy Black's interest in collecting aeronautical memorabilia. First he bought an Airfix model of an RAF Spitfire fighter plane. Then, as he was walking along the road in the early 1950s, a flight of Spitfires passed overhead.

"My father said: 'Listen carefully because, one day, you may never hear it again," says Mr Black. "I thought then that I'd love to own one." His home reveals the extent of his obsession. He has amassed some 4,500 technical manuals over the 30 years he has been collecting. "They each cost me just a few pounds. ... Now they fetch £75 to £150 a time."

Anybody who has watched a film of the RAF in World War Two will recognise the clocks that formed the focus of the operations room, pictured. Mr Black owns ten, one of each type produced, bought when they were almost worthless. They rarely come on the market now, but if they do they cost upwards of £2,500 each.

His collection also includes propellers and de-activated aircraft machine guns. However, he is finding it difficult to track down items, largely due to the interest excited by the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Battle of Britain in 1990 and 2000 along with the growth of websites such as eBay. Occasionally, rare objects do still turn up and this week he was due to travel to Sweden to see a First World War aircraft engine. Although his hobby has turned out to be an extremely shrewd investment, he says that is not what motivates him. "It's the collecting that's my passion.

"It's just good fortune that it's increased in value so rapidly."

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