Tucked away at the National Aviation Hall of Fame, a century-old rare artifact out of public view is a hidden treasure and at the center of a fight between the organization and a local congressman.
The eight-foot-and-a-half-foot-long wooden propeller has something Hall of Fame officials say no other airplane artifact is known to have: The signature of Orville Wright, who with his brother Wilbur invented the first practical airplane.
In 2013, a Texas aviation history authority appraised the propeller believed to have flown on a Wright brothers-built float plane, for $275,000.
But because it is the only one of its kind, Hall of Fame officials say it could actually be worth much more.
“People are saying this is worth seven figures, easy,” said NAHF President and Vice Chairman Michael J. Quiello.
The long-hidden propeller was thrust into the spotlight this month when U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, called on the Hall of Fame Board of Trustees to “cease and desist” any talk of selling the artifacts to raise money.
Quiello said any talk of selling the artifact was set aside more than two years ago. He added Turner’s call to “cease and desist” has had no impact on the Hall of Fame.
Orville Wright signed the vintage 1915 spruce propeller in November 1944. As the story goes, the Rev. Richard Willhelm Jr., and his brother, Joe, received the propeller from their father and took it to Orville Wright at his Oakwood mansion on Hawthorne Hill to be signed, an appraisal history says.
In 2004, the propeller was donated to the Hall of Fame after a former trustee purchased at his own expense for $37,000, according to the NAHF and appraisal information.
When in recent years NAHF trustees discovered the historic propeller in the nonprofit’s collection, the board had its value appraised.
“The board now realizes we have something that is not only an artifact, it’s a national treasure and this should not be sold to a highest bidder to be placed in somebody’s office, or placed in somebody’s bar, or sold to a foreign businessman so he can put it on his wall someplace,” he said. “This belongs literally to the people of the United States and anybody interested in aviation.”
It would have costs tens of thousands of dollars to conserve the artifact for public display, which didn’t fit in with a business strategy targeting a $5 million fundraising goal and future plans to upgrade the Learning Center with more interactive exhibits geared toward younger visitors at the National Aviation Hall of Fame, he said. The Hall of Fame is inside the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson.
Quiello said the NAHF trustees had pondered selling the artifact for display at the Wright brothers airplane factory — site of an intended future multi-million dollar renovation project in Dayton — or to a place like the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., as the best use of the artifact.
”We do feel like we have an obligation to the aviation community to keep this in the United States in the place where it would get the most exposure and that we believe should either be in Dayton at a … National Park Service site or it should be at the Smithsonian,” he said.
National Aviation Heritage Alliance Executive Director Tony Sculimbrene, a key leader in the planned future redevelopment of the Wright factory at West Third Street near Abbey Avenue in Dayton, said officials affiliated with the project determined the appraisal value of the propeller “was probably too high.”
Evaluating “one-of-a-kind artifacts is difficult to do and really the way that you determine the price of an historic artifact like that is to put it up for sale and they (the NAHF) did not want to do that,” he said Wednesday.
Also, he said, talk of displaying the propeller at the factory, which remains a years-long work in progress, was premature. “It became obvious to me we weren’t going to have it the factory to display anytime soon,” Sculimbrene said.
Timothy Gaffney, a NAHA spokesman who has authored a book about the Wright brothers factory, added: “We weren’t in a position to do anything at that time but it wold be wonderful” to have the propeller displayed at the factory.
Our military affairs reporter Barrie Barber continues to follow this developing story. Follow him on Twitter at @BarrieBarber for the latest news. Here’s a look at his coverage in recent months:
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