But for the right item, as ever, the buyers are out there and competition can be fierce at auction. Such a bidding battle developed at C&T Auctioneers on November 30, when a Second World War RAF Irvin flying jacket soared beyond a £1000-1500 estimate to sell for £4600 (plus 18% buyer’s premium).
Apart from being a very desirable bit of kit, compete with original B-Type flying helmet and MKIII flying goggles, and in good condition despite some repairs, it had the magic words ‘Battle of Britain’ linked to it. This is sure to get collectors going and ramp up the value.
Matthew Tredwen, militaria specialist at the Kent auction house, said: “It is the iconic bit of the Second World War for Britain really, that and D-Day. I do think it’s a shame that British medals to gallantry winners in the Far East for example are never that popular even though the citations can be outstanding, but they don’t capture the public’s imagination like Battle of Britain and D-Day.”
He admitted to being a “little bit shocked” at the result, but not that much given the RAF side of it and the fact that Irvin flying jackets do have a "good following" anyway.
Boosting the value was the background story. This jacket’s owner was known to be New Zealand fighter pilot P/O Owen ‘Okey’ Edward Lamb, 151 Squadron. Later killed in action with 73 Squadron in the Western Desert fighting a heavy Luftwaffe attack on Tobruk in April 1941, Lamb wore this jacket and equipment during the Battle of Britain.
It was consigned by a private collector who had owned it for a long time. Tredwen noted: “As soon as you mention Battle of Britain people are getting interested. I didn’t pay too much attention at first but when I started doing the research and the write-up on it I found I was getting quite excited by it myself.”
On sale day in Tunbridge Wells the bidding fight came down to a strong struggle between two phone bidders, with the victor a UK private collector. Tredwen said: “The underbidder was quite upset he didn’t get it - there was good competition between the two.”
Judging by recent results, most Irvin flying jackets fetch about £300-400 at auction but these are ones where the owner is not known. As a good comparison, though, in September last year C&T itself sold another jacket for £500 against an estimate of £150-250, but although the owner was known it was not a pilot who served in the Battle of Britain.
At the Gloucestershire saleroom of Dominic Winter in May 2010 an Irvin jacket worn by Sergeant-Pilot LA Thorogood, who served during the Battle of Britain from July-October 1940, sold for £3200 (est: £1500-2000).
While 'Battle of Britain' is a good auction bet, the words ‘special forces’ also ensure interest. In the November 30 sale a rare Second World War SOE (Special Operations Executive) hand generator battery charger No.2, for use with the B2 suitcase radio, sold for £1900 (est: £300-500). It came complete with its handle and was housed in the original storage tin with webbing straps.
Then in C&T’s December 5 arms and armour auction a special forces item from the same era resembling a Swiss army knife made a top-estimate £1200. This version was an SOE/OSS (Office of Strategic Services – an American wartime intelligence agency) utility knife, with slab sides enclosing three small hacksaw blades, small tyre-slasher blade and a larger blade. To the end is a wire cutter tool.
Made in Sheffield, they were issued to agents, and probably French resistance fighters, as tools to aid escape/evasion.
Tredwen said one of these knives had featured on the BBC Antiques Roadshow when it had been valued at £1000, and that had encouraged the current vendor to consign this example to C&T.