Buyer beware

I’ve never been happy with the idea of people digging up bits of crashed wartime aircraft, and then selling them for personal profit. How can you tell that a small piece of rusty metal came from a particular model, and that it was actually found in a specific location – a site that is actually the place where someone usually died? Even if the bodies of the men who perished were eventually recovered and buried, there is something ghoulish about trawling the ground in the hope that a personal artifact – maybe, a watch, a torch or an ID tag– will turn up.
But turn up they do, and then, inevitably, they emerge for sale on eBay or in the hands of specialist relics dealers. There’s obviously a good living to be made from this, as is proved by the emergence of large trading companies with substantial inventories and impressive websites.
One of these companies goes by the name of Historic Aviation, based in Minneapolis, in the state of Minnesota, USA. A reader of this blog, Steve Dulson, commenting on my recent article about the proposed memorial at the site where Flt Lt Norman Barlow and his crew crashed on the night of the Dams Raid, alerted me to an item for sale on this company’s website.
It is described as: ‘A rare opportunity to own a piece of World War II history! This display includes an authentic fragment from the Avro Lancaster bomber piloted by Robert Barlow of Squadron No. 617, the “Dambusters,” RAF, that was lost on May 17, 1943, during Operation Chastise, as well as a beautiful print depicting that fine machine soaring low in the night sky.’
At this point, the alarm on my Dambuster bullshit-meter began to sound. The picture quite clearly shows a Lancaster aircraft, coded AJ-E, flying over a dam but, as any Dambuster student knows, Barlow never reached the Ruhr area, colliding with a pylon shortly after crossing the Rhine. AJ-E, however, was the correct call sign for Barlow’s aircraft.
Kudos to another regular reader, Philip Knight, for pointing this out. He says that the picture shows Barlow at the Möhne Dam, but looking at it more carefully it seemed to me to be more like the Eder, which has arches in the dam wall and angled roofs on its towers.
The picture was painted by an artist called Ron Cole, so I went on a search for further information and found his website.
Well, what a surprise. The same picture, but with one important difference. The code painted on the aircraft side is AJ-N, which was borne on the Lancaster flown by Les Knight, the pilot whose weapon finally breached the Eder Dam.
It looks as though Ron Cole himself can tell his AJ-N from his AJ-E, but someone at Historic Aviation has decided that any old Lancaster picture will do as a mount for what looks like a small piece of metal plate. And it costs $24.95 more than you would pay for the print on its own on Mr Cole’s site, numbered and signed by the artist.
So what other treasures might be lurking in the Historic Aviation shop? A search through all the aviation art prints turned up another oddity. Here is a print of a picture by the British artist, Anthony Saunders, signed by the artist and Corporal Maureen Stevens, and retailing at $130.

The same image can be found on Mr Saunders’ own website, back in Blighty. So we can be fairly sure that he is responsible for this picture.
But on another page in the Historic Aviation shop, here is the same picture, but with a different title, scribed to a completely different artist, Richard Taylor, and allegedly signed by Les Munro and Johnny Johnson:


The text shown in the above screengrab seems to describe a completely different picture, which of course it is. The real “On Course for the Möhne Dam” by Richard Taylor can be found on the website of many art dealers:
So what do Messrs Cole, Saunders and Taylor make of the different ways in which their work has been misrepresented by the guys from Historic Aviation? And what does this say about the provenance of items which purport to be ‘authentic’ Dambuster relics.
I think we should be told. And, in the meantime, buyer beware.

POSTSCRIPT: Ron Cole has now contacted this blog, as can be seen in the comments below. He says that it was he himself who altered the original code on the side of the aircraft. He has also explained how it came about in an email to me:

I obtained a rather beat up panel from AJ-E about two years ago that hailed from the roof of a farm outbuilding, where it had been incorporated since the war. Since I make a business of combining such relics with my artwork, and had an earlier watercolor that portrayed a Lanc, I combined the two for a limited series of displays with the idea that one day I’d actually paint AJ-E and put together a more specific and historically accurate presentation. Then about six months ago I was commissioned to paint the cover for Guy Gibson’s ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ on audio book, depicting AJ-N. Not long after, Historic Aviation contacted me about the possibility of carrying a ‘Dambuster’ relic display, and since I still hadn’t gotten around to painting AJ-E, I did the next best thing by altering the book cover painting. It was at least better than the old watercolor Lanc, and looked nice. So that’s the story behind the otherwise odd combination, such as it is; an imperfect compromise.

Well at least we have an explanation! And also we now know where the panel from AJ-E now resides. As Mr Cole says, it is quite well known that during the war a local farmer had used it in some building work. However, I can’t help feeling that it would be a better idea to use an accurate portrayal of AJ-E, and its brave crew who often only appear as a footnote in the Dambuster story. They were in fact the first crew to take off from Scampton on that night, and were killed some two and a half hours later.
This official RAF picture, taken on the night, is the only picture of a Dams Raid Lancaster in flight and is thought to be of AJ-E taking off from Scampton. [IWM CH18006]

14 thoughts on “Buyer beware

  1. Tony Knight May 2, 2014 / 5:37 pm

    Charles, thanks for the detailed response to this. On looking at the photograph closer you are quite correct, the picture depicts Barlow’s aircraft at the Eder Dam and not the Mohne. The image wasn’t terribly good and I didn’t magnify it up, but the give away is the arch in the tower on the dam, which is definitely the Eder.
    The other anomaly being that the Eder was never Barlow’s target, his target was the Sorpe.

  2. Dom May 2, 2014 / 8:44 pm

    This why when I was recovering Cyril & the crews aircraft they were lost in I never said where the crash site was until I knew there was nothing left there. All that has been recovered will be going on display at RAF Scampton., Buyer beware on any item claiming to be Dam buster related ive seen P10 compass claiming to be a dam buster compass, one question usually clears up “I used dambusters so more people will look! ” if all the so called relics that claim to be from the “ lost aircraft we would probably find we have 21 again!

  3. Ron Cole May 3, 2014 / 8:33 pm

    Greetings! As I just explained to Mr. Foster via email, I am the person responsible for the historical compromise that is the Lanc relic display described here. It is the culmination of having acquired a small piece of AJ-E and being commissioned to paint the cover of Guy Gibson’s ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ on audio book. When approached by Historic Aviation regarding a ‘Damnbusters’ relic display, and because I still hadn’t painted AJ-E in its specific historically accurate circumstance, I went ahead and made the best of the book cover piece.

    Regarding provenance: I think we all know that there is no institutionalized ‘certification’ process within our genre such as there is for sports memorabilia. It all comes down to reputations, and, as noted by Mr. Foster, buyer beware. There are in fact many ways to learn much from even the most damaged pieces of aluminum, as materials, paint, and manufacturing techniques differed among nations and companies during the war, but not many people are well versed enough to know Dornier from Mitsubishi. I’d be all in favor for producing something to help investors tell the difference!

  4. Ron Cole May 3, 2014 / 9:12 pm

    Regarding the other items in the Historic Aviation catalog: I’ve been working with Historic Aviation for only about six months, but my experience with them reveals a group of professionals who do a great job considering the magnitude of their workload, but mistakes have happened – especially in cases where an image hasn’t matched a description. They’ve always remedied that when made aware, and try to clear up any issues when someone phones in an order. I had that happen when a P-47 display in their last catalog was described incorrectly. It can be frustrating, but these are mistakes and not acts of attempted fraud.

  5. Ron Cole May 3, 2014 / 10:56 pm

    I did just notice the intro of the above article that gives one opinion regarding the excavation and sale of aircraft parts, and I have my own opinion to proffer regarding the issue.

    Were it not for the excavation of historic WWII aircraft, we would have few restored examples of these aircraft flying or preserved today. Most of us know that few excavations and restorations would ever happen without the millions of dollars coming from ultra-rich investors like Evergreen International, Kermit Weeks, or Naburo Harada. I see it as a trade off, not unlike trickle down economics. They get the planes, and we get to at least see them fly. In any case, all of it is better than leaving them to rot in the ground. They will exfoliate to dust in the near future.

    When I combine aircraft parts with my artwork I am trying to do something to breath tangible history into my compositions. The idea comes in the wake of most WWII veterans passing away, and the fact that they can no longer autograph the works of aviation artists such as myself. It’s also my attempt to take something that typically is only within the realm of millionaires, access to real WWII aircraft, and put such things into the hands of just about everyone. Of course I make a profit in the process, but if it were not a sustainable business, it wouldn’t be done at all and I know many clients of mine who would feel very sad about that.

    Of course there are lines that should never be crossed. I’m troubled when I see excavated dog tags for sale on eBay, for example. But the fact is that all of this is a somewhat gray area and each individual person has their own opinion regarding where ‘the line’ is. The vast majority of my parts come from museum restoration projects, or from the collection of reputable archaeologists like Christiaan Vanhee. But as in the case of the ‘Damnbuster’ parts: I think that sometimes something comes from a very historical site, and in that case from a panel that had been used in the roof of a barn for 70 years; it’s not unreasonable to find places of honor in the homes of normal people for such things.

    That’s my opinion.

    • Susan Paxton May 4, 2014 / 2:45 pm

      And I might add that my small piece of AJ-E came from Ron. His website is an amazing resource for modelers interested in the proper interior colors of Japanese aircraft from WWII, by the way.

  6. Robert Peach May 6, 2014 / 2:24 pm

    You write “This official RAF picture, taken on the night, is the only picture of a Dams Raid Lancaster in flight and is thought to be of AJ-E taking off from Scampton”. I see no ‘bomb’ under the aircraft! Could this have been one of the few training flights that was photographed – & officialdom has given us the image masquerading as one from the raid itself?

    • Dick Timmers May 10, 2014 / 12:32 pm

      Robert is in my opinion quite correct. This plane carries indeed ‘no bomb’ and it takes off in an easterly direction according to the setting sun. Douglas D. Dildy writes in his book that AJ-E “turned eastbound”, so if the picture is correct an eastbound turn was not necessary.
      Also the person on the picture seems to be inserted: no clear contrast and his right foot does not stand on or touch the ground.

      • Susan Paxton May 10, 2014 / 2:42 pm

        The person looks like he was walking, explaining his foot off the ground. But I wonder if this is a picture from the “dress rehearsal” on the 14th.

  7. Rog Hobman October 6, 2014 / 2:30 pm

    Dear Mr Foster
    I have recently acquired a bombsight MK XIVa computor unit which I am assured is from a Avro lancaster of WW2 it possible via its serial and reference number plates to confirm it’s story,even in part ?

  8. Jean Croy April 13, 2018 / 7:02 am

    Ron loves to stretch the truth of his fantasy pieces. I commissioned him to make the Admiral Yamamoto Piece he is currently selling on ebay for 200 a pop. I worked with him for months getting it right and received a huge photo that I matched with my original relic, a verified Yamamoto plane piece which i received from Bunny darby who visited the crash site several times and even helped Rex Barber prove he shot down Yamamoto. I have all the correspondence which includes hand drawn picture of entry wounds of his bullets. Long story short, Ron was commissioned for a few thousand to make this piece and he did. shortly after I received it, he made little versions and started selling my photo on ebay with relic pieces claiming to be Yamamoto plane parts. Scandalous. I believe Rons work is exceptional, he has huge piles of pieces, and I believe he will do what ever it takes to make money crossing the line. [EDITED]

  9. Kevin GREEN March 8, 2020 / 3:04 pm

    If you go to Mr Coles website you can see some fine examples of his work with relics and custom art – he even has a picture of a ‘Dambuster’ Lancaster at rest on the apron prior to the raid, with members of both aircrew and ground crew standing around at the nose of the aircraft in conversation….. I have asked Mr Cole to explain why his ‘Dambuster’ Lancaster has it’s bomb bay doors open, clearly visible in his artwork – but he has chosen so far not to answer my question…..silence often speaks volumes.

  10. Phil June 18, 2020 / 4:05 pm

    There is a chap on Ebay currently selling crash relics from the Dams Raid. In the item description he states that the highest bidder will get more information on where the pieces were recovered. Is this legitimate?

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