The World War II veteran probably didn’t know it at the time, but his simple act of kindness sparked a lifelong obsession for Victor Kerpel, an East Hampton artist. As a boy, riding a bike around his Manhattan neighborhood, Mr. Kerpel would pretend to shoot down German and Japanese aircraft.
“Hey kid,” the veteran asked him. “What are you doing?”
“I’m shooting down enemy planes!”
“Come over here, I’ve got something for you.”
The gift was the veteran’s A-2 flight jacket from the Army Air Force, issued to pilots and crew. “This thing was huge on me, but I would not take it off,” Mr. Kerpel said last week. “That was the cat’s pajamas. It lived on me 24/7.”
Manufactured for the Army by contractors such as Aero Leather Clothing Company, the Cable Raincoat Company, and Perry Sportswear, authentic A-2 jackets are currently valued between a few hundred and several thousand dollars, depending on condition, customization, and verification. For Mr. Kerpel, his neighbor’s gift led both to the aforementioned obsession and a “glorified hobby.”
Using channels such as eBay, swap meets, and flea markets, Mr. Kerpel has been buying and selling authentic A-2 jackets for some 25 years. Though the available supply is dwindling, the Internet, flea markets, and word of mouth have brought him in contact with a global community of collectors.
Most A-2 jackets were made of horsehide, Mr. Kerpel said, and some are goatskin. To the trained eye, it isn’t too difficult to separate the genuine article from a reproduction. “You see guys walking around in the mall with jackets that kind of look [authentic], but if you look closely, you’ll see that they’re big enough to cover their gut, or are weirdly patched all over the place. Remember, guys in 1940-45 generally weren’t ‘workout’ guys, and in order to squeeze into cockpits, even in the big planes, they were about 5 foot 6, 5 foot 8.”
The jackets, he said, are “not exactly form-fitting, but they’re not loose, floppy garments. They’re very straightforward, no frills, purely utilitarian. They were designed to take some beating.”
On a sun-filled deck at his house, Mr. Kerpel displayed several A-2 jackets, some with patches on the front, some sporting an airman’s name, and some customized on the back with the image that decorated a particular plane’s fuselage. “The Belle of the Brawl,” an illustration in the style of the era’s pin-up art — a voluptuous woman, bombs cascading down on either side of her — decorates one. “These were 18-year-old kids,” said the collector. “Sometimes there was somebody with real talent, and they painted beautiful stuff on them. Other times it was pretty crude or rough. You had a bomber group of 10 young men who became very close-knit, kind of a team. They wanted a team reference, thus they would name their plane, and create some kind of art depicting that.”
Some of the patches adorning jackets were Army-sanctioned, he added, but others were unofficial. “Some were a bit risqué.”
In the 1960s, while a student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Mr. Kerpel had a studio at Bleecker Street and the Bowery. At the time, he recalled, when “the Bowery was the Bowery, full of winos and really a wreck,” many down-on-their-luck veterans sold their worldly possessions, including their A-2s, to secondhand stores. “They could be had for 10 or 15 dollars,” he said. “That ended.”
Along with the dwindling supply, fervent collectors have bid prices stratospherically high in recent years. There are collectors in the United States, Britain, China, Greece, Italy, even the Middle East, but some of the most avid are Japanese. “They still have this idea of the bushido,” the code of honor of the Japanese warrior class.
Though it has become more difficult to find authentic A-2 jackets, the recession spurred many people to sell unnecessary possessions, said Mr. Kerpel. “These things ebb and flow,” he said. “There are folks that have unlimited resources and can buy whatever they want whenever they want. For the rest of the world, in order to buy something to just have it . . . you have to consider that.”
Most serious collectors know one another, if not personally, then by reputation, “and reputation counts a lot,” he said. “There are some rascals who try to sell garbage, and jazz up a jacket to look like something it’s not. Newbies are taken all the time.”