Michael Luppino

Colorful nautical flags, a banner addition to any room, bedeck walls from coast to coast.

Flags, once the only communication between boats out of hailingdistance, signaled friend or foe. "If you flew the Jolly Roger,watch out!" says Jeffrey Kenneth Kohn, co-owner of the largestvintage flag dealer in the United States. "Sailors didn't havewalkie-talkies or cell phones. They had to look at flags to speak."Today, the striking ensigns express shipshape style when displayedin a home.

"There are two camps on collecting them," says Robert Banks, whoowns more than 100. "Some feel you should only buy what you haveroom to display. Then there's omnivores like me who collecteverything."

What draws people to these fragile vestiges of nautical history?"I'm very patriotic, and these artifacts are our country's ultimateemblems," says Robert. "Some collectors just look at designs andignore the history. But once the flags have been passed from handto hand, they become orphans with no past. Researching a flag'sidentity can increase its worth."

Learning the type and purpose of different flags also servesaficionados well. "The yachting flag, with stars and an anchor inthe middle, is most closely associated with the ocean," saysantiques dealer Ryan Cooper. "The low end runs $40 to $50 forcommon 20th-century [samples] and can go up to $2,000 or $3,000 formid-19th-century flags." Folks also seek naval ensigns, especiallythose from Civil War vessels or earlier. They typically sell for$1,500 to $2,500. Of course, the more famous the ship, the moreexpensive the flag.

Others are prized for their beauty. Romantic commissioningpennants, boasting long ribbonlike streamers, celebrate importantceremonies or christenings. Decorative eagle- or star-studded namepennants proclaim ships' proud owners. Less pricey signalflags-available for under $100, with whole sets from $600 to$700-offer a place for newcomers to start collecting. The flags,each representing a different letter of the alphabet, make a boldimpact when grouped. They're ideal for filling long hallways orbrightening a child's room.

"It's not always easy to tell whether a vintage flag was flownat sea," says Robert. Ryan suggests a good sign: "if it's a verylarge flag with a rope sewn into the sleeve." Also, 19th-centurynautical flags, typically fashioned from wool bunting, have a looseweave to allow air to pass through the material. Always look fornatural fabrics-no nylon or polyester.

"It's acceptable for a flag to have a few holes," says Ryan."Some collectors like a little age to them because they look battleworn." And that's a big part of the appeal. Delicate cloth that'swithstood salt-tinged winds and waters serves as an assuring symbolof survival.

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