Secrets of the Sonora Aero Club

A tale of UFOs, art collectors and the shadows of history

And in January, Steen plans a side trip to Sonora after retrieving some Menil-owned Picassos on loan in a San Francisco exhibit. He hopes to get a feel for the Gold Rush era and perhaps even to uncover traces of the club's members.

Recently he had Dellschau's journals translated from German into English. Their 200 pages feature stories about members of the Sonora Aero Club, with very few illustrations. In these tales, Dellschau mentions a boarding house, complete with bar and dining room, where he and club buddies stayed.

Something about the tales nags at Steen. "The more details I see about Dellschau, the more convinced I am that a great deal of it is highly possible," he says. "Even though it's fantastic, it's more than just fairy tales."

As for Pete Navarro, after trying to unravel the artist's secrets for 25 years, he still has the dreamy-eyed look of someone possessed by a riddle. Over the years, he's sold all his Dellschau notebooks because he needed the cash. Four went to the San Antonio Museum Association in 1972 and are shared between the Witte and San Antonio Museum of Art. Two years ago, Navarro sold his remaining four to the Ricco/Maresca Art Gallery in Manhattan.

Those notebooks hold the artist's late work, from 1919 to 1923. Gallery director Stephen Romano says he's sold more than ten pieces; Romano won't reveal the buyers' names but will say that a major law firm took three and that a stockbrocker, psychiatrist and film editor have each bought one. In just the last year, the selling price for a single Dellschau has jumped $3,000, from $12,000 to $15,000. Next year, the gallery plans to give the artist a one-man show.

But even at the gallery, the aeros' mysteries stubbornly refuse to yield to either commerce or art history. Two weeks ago, Romano received a call from a Houston UFO fan named Alexander who claims he's got Dellschau all figured out. Alexander, of course, refused to leave his phone number.

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