In 1996 we were just two enthusiasts with a passion for aviation and military art and after a chance meeting at an aero jumble we began trading and swapping a few prints. Colin was originally a Golf Professional and Rick served as a Royal Marine Commando but we had since moved into marketing, working for major corporations that placed great importance on customer service. We felt that, as customers something was lacking in the marketplace, so we decided we should give it a go ourselves and Aces High was born.
In the beginning we sold prints by mail order with a few aero jumbles and air shows thrown in, storing our 'huge' inventory in Colin’s downstairs toilet! Then in March 1998 we took the plunge and opened our first Gallery, in Wendover - a tiny loft space in the eaves of a derelict 16th century stable block. There were so many holes in the roof that everywhere you looked there was daylight and there was such a gale blowing through it was like a wind tunnel! Because we were in the eaves we couldn’t hang anything higher than three feet from the floor so customers had to practically lie down to look at the framing and because of the low beams there were more 'mind your head' signs hanging up than pictures... not quite the ideal setting!!
Trying to keep our costs down we renovated that building ourselves in our spare time, proving that DIY clearly wasn't our forte, and both of us were regularly almost knocked unconscious on those darned beams. After that experience we decided that the building industry wasn’t really for us and have left it to the professionals ever since! But it was a start, and over the next two years we expanded until we had taken over the whole building.
There were just the two of us back then, doing everything from framing to erecting the tents at the shows, and we kept our ‘real’ jobs for the first year so we could still afford to eat! We opened the gallery by appointment, spent every evening after work framing and doing paperwork and on most weekends would pack up the van and go on the road. We would turn up with our display literally anywhere that there was a gathering of more than ten people, sleeping in the van to save money - and all this on top of having a 'real' job. Sleep was in fairly short supply, but many of those collectors that we met in that first year are still valued customers today. In October 2001 the regular concussions from the low beams just got too much so we moved to our current premises in Wendover, a historic 16th Century former farmhouse with over 6000 square feet of display space on two floors. It’s the perfect setting to display our paintings and we've hosted some legendary veterans from Military history here for our events.
Having supplied US collectors by mail order for some years, in late 2003 we put our money where our mouth is and opened our American gallery in the picturesque town of Ojai in California. This major gallery is in a beautiful setting surrounded by hills and mountains and of course the weather is a bit different to England. Rick strangely finds many important reasons to be kept out there... especially in the winter!
In 2006 we flew a number of the Doolittle Raiders to the UK including a three day trip to Normandy and the D-Day beaches. Colin became increasingly enthusiastic about the area, making regular comments that 'this would be a great place for another gallery'. You really should be careful what you wish for as in 2009 we opened in Normandy........just as the global recession got into full swing! However, it has proved to be a winning gamble and things have gone from strength to strength. Our reputation continues to grow in the region and our gallery is now situated in the historic town of Ste-Mère-Église in Normandy.
Aces High USA at Oshkosh July 2007
Over the years the support from our customers has never ceased to astound us and there have been many occasions when we could not have kept going without it. Many collectors will remember the flood at the Wendover Gallery on the very morning of a major event a few years ago. It was without doubt a difficult challenge, but to witness customers up to their ankles in water bailing out the corridor and the offers of help and kindness that came along makes us realise that we are part of something very special. Our drivers arrived with Dame Vera Lynn and a number of Battle of Britain Pilots to find the ground floor inches deep in water. However that Bulldog spirit that got them through the War came to the fore and Dame Vera led the march with customers and veterans to reconvene at the Red Lion Hotel across the road to finish the event - what a Lady!
The move to our current premises in Wendover represented a major commitment for us but the attendance at the opening was phenomenal with a two hour queue for the whole weekend. In fact it was after this that we adopted the ‘ticket’ system that we use at our signing events, which alleviates the queuing time to meet the veterans. Likewise the opening of our gallery in California was a huge undertaking and really tested our organisation, but we are delighted to say that American collectors have embraced and supported us in the same way and for that we are very grateful.
We’ve experimented with things over the years, different signing events, guests, releases etc and sometimes we’ve got it right, sometimes we haven’t, but our customers have always been our number one concern and we strive to give the best service possible. The progress that we have made is of course very much due to our dedicated team, ably led by our Managers, Rod in California, Caroline in the UK and Clare in France and all of them are as committed and passionate as we are. A while ago we ran a TV advertising campaign and after being qualified by the advertising standards were given the go ahead to call Aces High 'the world's foremost specialists in Aviation and Military Art'. This isn't something we take lightly, however at the end of the day we are still collectors and we understand that it is ultimately our customers, many of whom have become friends for many years, that have allowed us to work in the industry that we love for the last nineteen years. So many of the enthusiasts that attend our events today have been with us since those very early days at the aero jumbles and all of our customers over the years have been just as much a part of our journey as we have.
Vine Tree House – the current Gallery in Wendover
So here we are nearly twenty years on - doesn't time fly when you're having fun! As with any business it hasn’t all been plain sailing and we all know that the last couple of years in particular have been challenging times for everyone, businesses and collectors alike. But once again the loyalty and support that we have received from our customers has been remarkable and we can honestly say that our passion and commitment hasn’t diminished one bit. We still put in the long hours but we feel privileged to be involved with equally passionate collectors, working with some outstanding artists and are absolutely humbled to be in the company of these amazing veterans; the men and women that shaped the world we live in today - they are very special people indeed.
Our many events around the world are a celebration of what has been achieved over the years by all of us; our fully committed team, who are always prepared to go the extra mile and the friends and customers whose support is never taken for granted. We understand that we couldn’t have got this far without you and if are able to make it to these events we hope you have a fantastic time. But if not we hope to hear from you soon or see you at one of our Gallery events or airshow's somewhere in the world in the near future.
Either way, we thank our fellow collectors and you have our utmost appreciation for your loyal support.
Rick and Colin