Desco US Navy diving helmet, £8000 at John Nicholson’s.

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His bid of £8000, eight times the low estimate, proved successful at Fernhurst saleroom John Nicholson’s (25% buyer’s premium) on February 10.

The helmet, dating to 1944, was made by the Diving Equipment and Salvage Company (Desco) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and had been presented as a gift to someone who helped build one of its submarines.

The recipient’s family consigned the diving helmet, along with boots.

Going in deep

Desco was launched in 1937 and the firm is still in business today. In that decade a Milwaukee diver named Max Nohl had received national publicity as the result of his salvage operations on a sunken steamship.

His efforts attracted the attention of a Hollywood film producer who had an eye on a salvage dive to the liner Lusitania, torpedoed off the Irish coast in 1915.

The quest proved abortive but it inspired Nohl and two colleagues to design innovative diving equipment and Desco was established. Using the new kit Nohl broke a diving depth record in 1937 that had stood since 1915.

The Second World War brought big US Navy contracts as Desco produced more standard diving equipment and by the end of the conflict the company was producing more diving gear than any other company in the world.


Desco US Navy diving helmet, £8000 at John Nicholson’s.

The hammer price in Fernhurst matches the values achieved in US sales for similar Desco helmets from the same year.

However, earlier diving helmets can make five figures. An 1860s-70s diving helmet by diving pioneer John Date in Montreal or possibly the Siebe Gorman firm in London sold recently for $45,000 (£25,500) at Nation’s Attic of Kansas, the leading US auction house for vintage diving equipment (see ATG No 2629).

Several diving helmets from the 1920s-30s have been offered by London maritime specialist auctioneer Charles Miller in the past few years, selling around the £4500-5500 hammer price level.