Reproductions & Fakes
The Smithsonian Display Fiasco
by Les Hughes
In 1990 a large and valuable group of airborne-related artifacts disappeared. The artifacts had been borrowed from veterans of WWII American airborne units for a display that was to be mounted at the Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with the festivities in Washington, DC, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of American airborne forces. The display was sponsored by an ad hoc veterans organization, the USA Airborne 50th Anniversary Foundation, whose Executive Committee and Advisory Board comprised respected members of the airborne veterans community. While the Smithsonian would supply space and staff for mounting the display, it was the Foundationís responsibility to accumulate the artifacts to be used in the display. The display was but one of many anniversary-related activities for which the Foundation was responsible, and, apparently, it was viewed as a minor activity, because after appointing an individual to solicit the loan of artifacts for the display, the Foundationís officers turned their attention elsewhere.
Over a year later, before the display could be mounted, the Foundation severed its ties with the individual it had appointed to solicit artifacts, and the items he had accumulated on loan were never used in a display at the Smithsonian. Neither was possession of the artifacts secured by the Foundation: the individual who had accumulated them was told to return the items to the veterans, and, again, the Foundation turned its attention elsewhere. When the veterans who had lent items attempted to obtain their return, their efforts to contact the individual who had solicited their belongings were unsuccessful. Prompted by complaints from the lenders, the Foundation's co-Chairmen, in the sternest possible terms, requested of the Foundation's erstwhile solicitor an accounting of the borrowed items. Finally, the individual in question informed the co-Chairmen that all of the artifacts had been stolen from him. What exactly did this group of stolen artifacts comprise? That will never accurately be known. When the co-Chairmen asked the individual to submit an itemized list of the artifacts he had borrowed and the names of the lenders, the individual responded that he had no such list and that he could recall but a few of the artifacts and their lenders.
Since the disappearance of these artifacts, several that were marked with the names of their original owners (e.g., jump suits) have surfaced in collections in Europe. With few exceptions, collectors and dealers into or through whose hands some of the missing artifacts are believed to have passed have have been uncooperative with efforts to assist the veterans in tracing the items they lost. Indeed, some have openly expressed anger, not with whomever sold them stolen artifacts, rather with those seeking to trace the artifacts. It has not been the hobby's finest hour.
Three items that have not surfaced are illustrated in the following images. They are illustrated here in the hope that there are individuals in the hobby who know where these items are and who will pass that information along to those assisting the original owners.
The first item is an A-2 leather jacket that bears a leather 82nd Airborne Division patch on the left breast and above it a leather name strip with S. H. Dix. Captain Dix, who served with the 504 PIR, found that the jacket, size 40, was too large to wear, so he packed it away in his footlocker, where it remained until lent for the display. About five years ago, Dix's daughter, who has searched for her father's belongings since their disappearance, found the Ike jacket and overseas cap that were lent with the A-2 in the hands of a dealer. The dealer expressed sympathy for the circumstances surrounding the loss of her father's artifacts, but business was business. Dix's daughter paid the dealer nearly $600 to recover her father's Ike jacket. A meeting with the dealer to purchase the overseas cap, for about $250, fell through when the dealer failed to appear. I spoke recently with Dix's daughter, and she told me that her efforts to trace her father's A-2 lead her to believe it is in a collection Belgium. If that is true, it would not be the first of the missing artifacts to end up there.
Artifacts of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion are rare and are especially sought after by collectors, a fact that may account for the veterans of this unit having been lobbied vigorously to donate to the display. A veteran of the 551 who lent a large number of artifacts and lost them all is C. S. Fairlamb. Some of the items he lent and lost are illustrated here.
Arguably the most valuable and distinctive item to disappear was a B-10 flight jacket on which was sewn a jacket patch of the 551st PIB. The jacket belongs to E. F. Schroeder, a former officer of the 551. Schroeder also once owned a leather A-2 jacket with 551 patch. Years earlier he lent the A-2 to a private "museum." Later, when he attempted to secure the jacket's return, he was informed it had been lost. In spite of that incident, and in spite of concerns that were conveyed to him regarding the manner in which the Foundation was handling the display project, Schroeder lent his B-10 jacket for the Smithsonian display. This jacket/patch combination is so rare as to be unique and readily recognizable. Adding to its distinctiveness is the manner in which the black wool base of the patch has been trimmed.
These items are stolen. The legal owners or their families would like very much to know where these items are. If you have seen them, please contact insigne.org.
Postscript: In July 2004, I received a package in the mail with a return address of "Fairlamb" and an address in California. The package contained the Ike jacket of Charles Fairlamb that had been lent for the Smithsonian display and had subsequently disappeared. Charles, whom I knew best of the victims of the display ripoff, had died several years earlier, but I had been in touch with his son and sent the jacket along to him. The return address on the package turned out to be that of a well-known dealer who, I determined to my satisfaction, knew nothing about the package. While I do not know with certainty who sent the jacket to me, I have a good idea who it wasónot someone involved in taking the jacket but rather someone into whose possession it came later and who had the courage to do the right thing.
Charles's jump suit had surfaced a year or two after it disappeared in the hands of a collector in Europe who, according to more than one report, was friends with the individual last in possession of the missing artifacts. There is reason to believe the collector was unaware that the jump suit had been stolen as he told Charles that it was in his possession when the collector met with a group of 551st vets when they toured Europe. Hearing that the jump suit was stolen, the collector offered to return or to buy it. But Charles allowed him to keep the suit. It was an act of generosity that was forgotten when Charles asked the collector how he had come to have his jump suit, and the collector claimed not to be able to recall specifics, just that he'd gotten it from someone at some militaria show. The collector has since offered the jump suit for sale for several thousand dollars.
In May 2008, the 551st jacket patch of of E. F. Schroeder was offered on eBay by a West Coast militaria dealer who had been commissioned to assist in liquidating the insignia collection of a wealthy East Coast collector whose identity was a well-kept secret (though, in time, I learned it). The patch had been removed from the B-10 jacket on which it was sewn when lent for the Smithsonian display, and it had been stripped, for good reason, of its provenance. But I recognized it as soon as I saw it, and subsequent comparisons of the images of it on eBay with photos in my possession confirmed it as the one from Mr. Schroeder's B-10. I was also able to piece together the path it had traveled from Schroeder to eBay. Email detailing the patch's history to the dealer to whom the patch had been consigned for sale elicited a response heavy with irritation and skepticism, followed, a few days later, by the withdrawal of the patch from eBay. The patch has since disappeared, sold, no doubt, privately and quietly.
The central character in the sorry saga of the abortive Smithsonian display, the individual tasked by the Foundation with soliciting donations of memorabilia, died in 2010.