The answer from the experts was always the same: then your mom told you that this aviator helmet belonged to Amelia Earhart? That’s great, they would say, but we’re going to need a little more proof.
It was the main message sent to Anthony Twiggs, who inherited the leather cap more than 20 years ago when his mother died.
It was still, after all these years, remarkably supple, with the smallest tear just below the half-moon shaped communication pocket on the left flap. The cap looked a lot like the aviator helmet she wore on her first transatlantic flight, in 1928. It had been missing since an air race in 1929. It was the same race from which Earhart’s leather goggles had disappeared, found later with lenses disappeared and donated in 1957 to the Smithsonian.
The story of Earhart’s iconic helmet began as part of a 1928 marketing stunt in a Times Square office, where the idea for the “Lady Lindy” was born. How Mr Twiggs, now 67, came into possession of this famous cap begins with a story his mother used to tell about the day in 1929 when she saw Amelia Earhart at Cleveland Municipal Airport. It was the finish line of the Women’s National Air Derby – forever marked as the Powder Puff Derby, thanks to a wisecrack from Will Rogers, the folkloric film star and comedian.
The race started in Santa Monica, California: 20 women, 20 planes, taking off one after another at one-minute intervals. Earhart, already world famous and the betting favorite to win, arrived in Cleveland after eight grueling days. Only 11 women made it to the end, where 18,000 spectators were waiting, including Mr Twiggs’ mother, Ellie Brookhart.
Although Earhart would only take third place, she was mobbed by fans at the airfield, and Ellie and a group of school friends were among those who ran to greet her single-engine Lockheed Vega after its noisy landing and bumpy. To hear his mother describe it, it was chaos on the airstrip. (Mr Twiggs found old news footage on YouTube to back up his report.)
In her story, a boy who had a crush on her then pushed her away. He told her he had Amelia’s leather helmet and wanted her to have it. She asked him if he had ripped it out of his head. He told her that he had found her on the ground.
On the rare occasions when her mother told the story, she could, if she begged, pull out the helmet for one of her four children. She had carefully stored it in an unsealed clear plastic bag, “like a Ziploc without the zipper”, which was neatly arranged on tissue paper in a small box.
And it stayed there for the better part of a century until Mr. Twiggs decided it might be better off in a museum instead of a closet in Minnesota. No one in his extended family was as fascinated as he was.
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The first time he introduced an expert, the one he saw on “Antiques Roadshow,” he almost laughed on the phone. But no matter who Mr. Twiggs contacted about his charming story, he was fired. “Maybe they all thought I was an asshole from Minnesota.”
Eventually, he began to doubt himself. Could her mother have made it all up? She had, after all, shaved off a few years of her birth. She never liked being older than her husband.
Amelia Earhart did the same. A year before the Derby race, Earhart was a young social worker with a pilot’s license who lied about her age during a life-changing interview in Midtown Manhattan. She would meet George Palmer Putnam in the famous Putnam Building, with his giant PUTNAM banner floating on the roof of Times Square.
She had been scouted in Boston, and now she was interviewing Putnam, the publishing scion, who wanted her to join the first flight with a passenger across the Atlantic. She figured it would sound better if she was 29, not 31.
All was silent, warns this handsome, influential man. The effort was to be paid for by steel heiress Amy Phipps Guest. Earhart would only be a passenger on the flight, and she wouldn’t even get paid. But his presence was crucial.
The year before, 1927, Charles Lindbergh captivated the world when he flew from Garden City, NY, to Paris nonstop. Putnam, through shrewd maneuvering, became his editor, guiding Lindbergh’s quickly written memoir, “WE” – the plural being a reference to him and his plane – from start to finish, and it sold to 650,000 sensational copies in the first year.
A Lindbergh woman, Putnam knew, would make another good book. And after Lindy, Earhart knew, the glory would go to the first woman to cross, even as a passenger.
In the year since Lindbergh’s escape, half a dozen women have tried and failed, four of whom have died. But Putnam was not one to consider danger, and to his delight, Earhart – whom he would eventually marry – said yes. She would fly.
Days before the first leg of the transatlantic flight, from Boston to Newfoundland, Earhart arrived for a secret photo shoot on the roof of the Copley Plaza Hotel in the brown leather jacket, lace-up boots and leather helmet that she had worn on flights for years. The photographer tilted her profile to look a lot like Lindbergh’s photos. Stylish snaps of Earhart in his flight gear would be published in The New York Times, which was paying Putnam for exclusive airman access, if the flight was successful.
He did, on June 18, 1928. She returned triumphantly to America – by ship – and received a ticker parade in downtown New York, just as Lindy had. Of course, the hype was also for Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon, the two men who did the actual piloting, but who cared about them? Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of Lady Lindy, who cut a dashing figure as she waved to the crowd from the back of a convertible.
Nine years later, Earhart would disappear somewhere near tiny Howland Island, barely a speck in the Pacific Ocean.
In October, Anthony Twiggs thought he would try to unload his famous artifact one last time. He had read about the burgeoning field of photo matching, which digitally compares photos of auction items with old photos or film. Extraordinary auction numbers have been achieved with this new form of authentication: Thanks to photo matching, a Lou Gehrig jersey was auctioned off for $2.58 million in 2019.
Mr Twiggs, himself a retired photographer, tried to match the memory of his mother with old photos of Earhart found on the internet. Immediately, he was speechless. His backyard photographs of the helmet (which he carefully positioned against a medium black background) matched the images of his famous first flight across the Atlantic in 1928 exactly.
After mentally bracing himself for more ridicule, he contacted another auction house.
His own photo reviews were encouraging, he was told, but it would help if he could lend a hand to professional photo-matching attire, the kind auction houses use to set their prices. They recommended Resolution Photomatch in Seattle, a pioneer in side-by-side photo matching since 2016.
He would have to pay for this service himself, which costs $2,000, but it would be a worthwhile investment if he came back with a yes.
Shortly after receiving the photos, Resolution Photomatch owner John Robinson called Mr Twiggs and, trying to temper his excitement, told him the evidence was conclusive. According to her expert opinion, it was Amelia Earhart’s aviator helmet.
The images matched several photographs at his Welsh landing site, with the definitive match being an undated photo taken most likely during the Copley Plaza rooftop photo shoot. The distinctive creases and creases on the front and sides of the helmet were evident. There was noticeable wear on the earcup trim of the headphones which also matched. “It’s unique of a piece like there is,” Mr Robinson assessed, adding that he was 100% certain of its authenticity.
He suggested Mr. Twiggs immediately contact Heritage Auctions, one of the world’s largest collectibles dealers. “Use my name,” he told Mr. Twiggs. “An extraordinary find.”
Heritage lists Earhart’s helmet under the category of sports memorabilia. “Sports collectors are used to matching photos,” said Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Heritage. The expected price for the headset is over $80,000. “But it’s one of a kind,” Mr. Ivy said. “We can even see six figures. Who knows?”
The auction will take place online on the Heritage website. Auctions end at 10 p.m. on Saturday, February 26.
In the meantime, Mr. Twiggs eagerly awaits the results of the auction. No doubt he’s excited about the possible bargain – “Who wouldn’t be?” – but he’s just as relieved that his mother’s story turned out to be true. “Everyone thought my mom was gone,” he said. His family always assumed it was some kind of myth, the artifact in the closet.
“My mother saved it for Amelia. She thought that was the most interesting thing. There was never any mention of this boy whom she wouldn’t even name,” Mr Twiggs said. “He didn’t impress her much, but the helmet did.”
Laurie Gwen Shapiro is the author of “The Stowaway”. She is currently writing a book about Amelia Earhart’s marriage, which will be published by Viking in 2023.