Amelia Earhart’s helmet that sold for $825,000 sat in Minnesota closets for decades

For much of the last century, Amelia Earhart’s lambskin aviator helmet was wrapped in a plastic bag and stored amid tissues in a shirtbox in Austin, Minnesota.

Austin is where Elinor “Ellie” Twiggs settled in 1949, raising four children with her husband, Dr. Leo Twiggs, who ran general medicine after a stint in the Army Medical Corps during World War II. . They are buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

Ellie often reduced her age by a few years because she didn’t like being a year older than Leo. But it turns out she wasn’t lying about that aviator cap in the shirtbox – a treasured keepsake she found herself with as a teenager when she joined a crowd waving at Earhart at the municipal airport of Cleveland in 1929.

After decades in cupboards in Austin and Edina – with stops in Ohio, Kentucky and California along the way – the historic flight ceiling soared into the online auction stratosphere last month when a high bidder anonymous paid $825,000 for it. Nearly $688,000 of this windfall will go to Ellie’s descendants.

“It’s been a wild ride, and we’re still in shock,” said Anthony Twiggs, 67, a retired commercial photographer from Edina.

The extended bidding pushed the auction online at 2 a.m. on February 27. As the main offers climbed on Twiggs’ computer screen from $100,000 to $250,000 and then over half a million dollars, Twiggs said his 26-year-old son, Elliot, had kept shouting, “Cool it, cool it!” from his computer in another room.

Twiggs does not know the identity of the winning bidder, but was told it was a high-profile California entertainment celebrity. “Oprah Winfrey?” he speculated. He dismissed others who guessed it was Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who took Earhart’s glasses into space on his Blue Origin flight last summer.

The story of Earhart’s long-lost helmet first appeared in a New York Times article last month by filmmaker and writer Laurie Gwen Shapiro, who is working on a book about Earhart. She said the honchos at Heritage Auctions predicted the winning bid would top $80,000. He exceeded that tenfold.

“The story my mom told was always consistent,” Twiggs said. “Details have never been different.”

The daughter of a Cleveland doctor, Ellie Brookhart had just turned 13 when she ran into Earhart on the tarmac near her home. Earhart had risen to fame as the first transatlantic passenger, when she was nicknamed ‘Lady Lindy’ for crossing the ocean in a plane piloted by two men a year after Minnesotan Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo flight to Paris in 1927.

Earhart finished third among 20 women who took off in the Women’s National Air Derby, racing from Santa Monica, Calif., to the finish line in Cleveland. Ellie and her friends were among the crowd that swarmed into Earhart’s single-engine Lockheed Vega after a hard landing.

A boy who had a crush on Ellie gave him Earhart’s helmet, which he said he found on the ground at the airport.

“My mom never mentioned the boy’s name,” Anthony Twiggs said. “He didn’t impress her, but the helmet certainly did.”

Twiggs admitted he was skeptical of his mother’s story.

“At first I didn’t think it was real,” he said. “It was always in the back of my mind, a curiosity, something barely on my radar.”

When Ellie died in Minneapolis in 2000 at the age of 84, the helmet went to her daughter, Susan Knowles. After Knowles died in California five years ago, the helmet ended up with Twiggs in Edina.

He shared the artifact’s story with the producers of the PBS show “Antiques Roadshow,” who pooped about its provenance. Nice story, they said, but we’re not interested. Two historic artifacts auctioneers also rejected it, saying it would be impossible to prove it belonged to Earhart because these helmets were mass-produced.

Aggravated, Twiggs turned to his own area of ​​expertise – high-end, high-resolution photography. He found archival photos of Earhart during the 1928 Atlantic crossing and the race to Cleveland. Using a new process called photo matching, he zoomed in on three distinct ridges or creases that appeared on the helmet Earhart was wearing in the photos and the one in his mother’s box.

After spending $2,000 on a second opinion with an industry-leading photo-matching company in Seattle, Resolution Photomatching, “We were 100% sure it was genuine,” Twiggs said. “There was no way to pretend.”

Earhart disappeared in 1937 while flying over the Pacific Ocean. But the helmet she lost in Cleveland has found a new home after decades in Ellie’s shirtbox.

“You must be stubborn about these things,” said Twiggs, who will divide the auction’s spoils between her two brothers, both retired doctors from New Mexico and Wisconsin, and Knowles’ children.

“Even if you think the artifact you inherited isn’t genuine,” he said, “find out the facts, because it could very well be your retirement fund.”

Curt Brown’s Tales of Minnesota History appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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