When that throaty roar echoed across Christie’s London saleroom in July even the uninitiated could have guessed there was something remarkable afoot. And they’d have been right – as part of its Exceptional Sale, the auction house was about to bring down the hammer on a unique piece of history and finalise a remarkable act of philanthropy.
The Vickers Supermarine Spitfire Mk1A (with the serial number P9374) sold for more than £3.1m, more than £500,000 in excess of its high estimate, and in so doing set a new world record price for a Spitfire at auction.
The aircraft had formerly belonged to the American philanthropist and art collector Thomas Kaplan and its sale would benefit the RAF Benevolent Fund, in addition to wildlife conservation charity Panthera and Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.
A particularly rare version of the Spitfire with a remarkable history, P9374 is one of only two remaining Mk1 models that have been restored to their original specifications and are still capable of flying. The other, Spitfire N3200, also belonging to Kaplan, was gifted to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in Cambridgeshire on 9 July.
P9374 had been thought lost for ever. It was hit by a single bullet over Dunkirk on 24 May 1940 and crash-landed on a beach near Calais. Its pilot, flying officer Peter Cazenove, was able to send out a radio message stating: ‘Tell mother I’ll be home for tea’, but was actually taken prisoner shortly after abandoning his wrecked aeroplane.
Gradually it sank into the sands – where it remained until the 1980s, when its wreckage was revealed by strong tides.
Shortly afterwards its remains were bought by Kaplan, who then entrusted them to the Aircraft Restoration Company for the painstaking process of refurbishment.
John Romain, pilot and chief engineer at the Aircraft Restoration Company, says: ‘We have restored it over the past five years. It came to us quite literally in boxes of parts that had been removed from the beach in France. We spent five years restoring it back to its original state – it is unique in that sense.’
A team of 12 dedicated engineers worked on the restoration, which aviation experts consider to be the most authentic restoration of an original Mk1 Spitfire to date, incorporating many components from the original plane into the build – a major feat in itself when you consider those parts had spent more than 40 years submerged beneath sand and salt water.
Romain adds: ‘We’ve restored 18 Spitfires over the years but have never been asked to restore one to such an exacting standard. We’ve also seen Spitfires at auction before, but many years ago. This one is particularly special, it was very unusual to see a Spitfire like this go to auction. It was a special project for me to be involved in.’
The pilot is also impressed by the end result of all the hard work and problem-solving. ‘I’ve done the test flying and it was beautiful to fly. It really is a beautiful aircraft. It has flown at Duxford and people there started calling it “The Ballerina”, and that nickname has stuck.’
Kaplan’s own interest in historic aircraft goes back decades and he had a particular idea in mind when he heard that Cazenove’s aircraft had re-emerged on that French beach. ‘When my great childhood friend, Simon Marsh, and I embarked upon this project, it was to pay homage to those who Churchill called “the Few”, the pilots who were all that stood between Hitler’s darkness and what was left of civilisation. The [Christie’s sale], more than anything else, is a concrete gesture of gratitude and remembrance for those who prevailed in one of the most pivotal battles in modern history.
‘The sale of the aircraft for charity is an opportunity to share that passion with others and to benefit causes that have moved me since boyhood. The RAF Benevolent Fund represents a way to honour that breed who gave so much for Britain when its existence was imperiled.
He added: ‘In a more similar way than one might realise, we are also highlighting my family’s consuming passion, the conservation of the world’s imperiled wild cats.
‘By dedicating proceeds to Panthera, now the premier organisation focused solely on the conservation of the wild cats and their critical habitats, as well as Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), my family wants to highlight the need to save these species from extinction while there’s still time.
‘As history tells us all, there comes a time when one simply has to step up – to act with passion, and to remember with gratitude the few that actually do.’
The story of Cazenove’s aircraft is at least matched by that of its fellow Spitfire, N3200. During World War II this machine was based at what is now the Imperial War Museum Duxford and was then the RAF Duxford airbase.
Records show it was flown by at least eight different pilots, almost certainly including squadron leader Roger Bushell, who was later instrumental in the break-out from the German prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III – an event that formed the basis for the film The Great Escape.
It is a subject close to Kaplan’s heart, he says. ‘The return to Duxford of N3200 is an act of love for Britain that began with my and Simon’s mutual passion for aircraft and desire to enshrine a British legacy.’
Anyone who is fortunate to see either of these remarkable aircraft in flight over the coming months and years will feel that legacy first hand. They will also hopefully understand the passion of people such as Kaplan and Romain – its meaning encapsulated by the sound that stilled Christie’s sale room this summer – the emotive roar of a Merlin engine.