Flags, once the only communication between boats out of hailing distance, signaled friend or foe. "If you flew the Jolly Roger, watch out!" says Jeffrey Kenneth Kohn, co-owner of the largest vintage flag dealer in the United States. "Sailors didn't have walkie-talkies or cell phones. They had to look at flags to speak." Today, the striking ensigns express shipshape style when displayed in a home.
"There are two camps on collecting them," says Robert Banks, who owns more than 100. "Some feel you should only buy what you have room to display. Then there's omnivores like me who collect everything."
What draws people to these fragile vestiges of nautical history? "I'm very patriotic, and these artifacts are our country's ultimate emblems," says Robert. "Some collectors just look at designs and ignore the history. But once the flags have been passed from hand to hand, they become orphans with no past. Researching a flag's identity can increase its worth."
Learning the type and purpose of different flags also serves aficionados well. "The yachting flag, with stars and an anchor in the middle, is most closely associated with the ocean," says antiques dealer Ryan Cooper. "The low end runs $40 to $50 for common 20th-century [samples] and can go up to $2,000 or $3,000 for mid-19th-century flags." Folks also seek naval ensigns, especially those from Civil War vessels or earlier. They typically sell for $1,500 to $2,500. Of course, the more famous the ship, the more expensive the flag.
Others are prized for their beauty. Romantic commissioning pennants, boasting long ribbonlike streamers, celebrate important ceremonies or christenings. Decorative eagle- or star-studded name pennants proclaim ships' proud owners. Less pricey signal flags-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 bold impact when grouped. They're ideal for filling long hallways or brightening a child's room.
"It's not always easy to tell whether a vintage flag was flown at sea," says Robert. Ryan suggests a good sign: "if it's a very large flag with a rope sewn into the sleeve." Also, 19th-century nautical flags, typically fashioned from wool bunting, have a loose weave to allow air to pass through the material. Always look for natural 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 battle worn." And that's a big part of the appeal. Delicate cloth that's withstood salt-tinged winds and waters serves as an assuring symbol of survival.