One Saturday last January while Don Creekmore was in his Wichita, Kansas, home, he started getting text messages from an unknown phone number in Wisconsin. Odd. There were no words. No explanations. All that was popping up were drop-the-phone, catch-your-breath, mind-boggling pictures.
“Only once in your hunting career do you find something like this,” says Creekmore, an authority on antique diving helmets who, with his wife, Jenny, runs Nation’s Attic, a Wichita business specializing in buying and selling of antique diving gear.
The object of Creekmore’s wonder is a US Navy Mark V diving helmet made in 1916 by A.J. Morse & Son Inc., Boston, believed to be the earliest such helmet to exist. The discovery could be the most significant find in diving helmet history.
“You just wouldn’t think something like this would exist,” Creekmore says. “The helmet was lost to history, and now here it is.”
Diving helmets have been around in some form or another since the 1820s. Although manufactured worldwide by a number of companies, the US Navy Mark V is one of the best known and most recognized diving helmets in the world. The Navy used the Mark V from 1916 to 1984.
Because of pedigree and visual appeal, collectors covet the helmet. “The Mark V is the helmet everybody knows and it’s the helmet everybody wants,” Creekmore says. “They’re probably the coolest helmet ever made.”
The average price of an American-made helmet runs between $3,000 and $10,000. A vintage Mark V helmet sells for between $6,000 and $10,000. The world record price for any helmet is $63,000. The recently discovered Mark V, dating to the brand’s origin in 1916, could surpass the world-record value when it comes to auction July 18 at Nation’s Attic.
How the helmet found Creekmore is equally unique.
The helmet originally belonged to two brothers living in a small town in northwest Wisconsin. The brothers were indiscriminate collectors – hoarders, really – who started in the 1950s to pack a house with stuff they found interesting. Decades since, the helmet was buried among other finds, a historical mystery long forgotten.
A friend of the brothers pulled the helmet out of the house, intrigued. He bought it and then, after some online hunting of his own, started texting Creekmore images, and little else.
Creekmore got back to the owner of the helmet and told him what he thought he had. After even more back and forth, Creekmore drove from Wichita to Wisconsin in late February to get the helmet, which he will sell on consignment, highlighting a mid-July auction featuring 21 other antique and vintage diving helmets, related equipment, maritime memorabilia and rare vintage scuba equipment.
How the brothers came upon the helmet is unknown but Creekmore has his suspicions. “During the 1950s, Mark V helmets were commonly sold as surplus government equipment around the United States,” he says. “Having no knowledge of diving helmets or nautical antiques in general, they purchased it as a curiosity.”
The Mark V has been thoroughly researched. There’s not much that isn’t known. First made in 1916 for the Navy, the helmet saw a dramatic increase in production in 1917 for World War I and also in 1941 for World War II. A large majority of Mark V helmets found today are dated 1942 to 1945, the height of WWII production. A very small percentage of surviving examples are from 1918. Mark V helmets dated to periods when the U.S. was not engaged in war are extremely rare finds.
“It really is incredible. You just wouldn’t think something like this would simply show up seemingly out of nowhere, and yet …”
And yet here it is, a once buried treasure soon to emerge as a historical centerpiece of someone’s collection.