Collectibles: Wave of the Past

<< Back to Robb Report, July 2007
  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

As old as it is, the Hawaiian surfboard from 1895 that is the highlight of an upcoming surf memorabilia auction may be relatively new when compared to the sport itself. In fact, the board dates from a surfing renaissance in Hawaii, where, it is believed, the sport was invented. Presumably, islanders were riding the waves long before 1779, when the members of Capt. James Cook’s expedition became the first Europeans to visit Hawaii. “The diversion is only intended as an amusement,” wrote crewman James King in his chronicle of the voyage, “not a tryal of skill, & in a gentle swell that sets on must I conceive be very pleasant, at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.”

The Christian missionaries who followed Cook, arriving in 1820, disapproved of great pleasure in general, and in particular when it was derived from a motion performed in a loincloth, which was the islanders’ preferred garb for surfing. (Cook never surfed while in Hawaii, but he did end up facedown in the water: He was killed after his attempt to retrieve a stolen boat devolved into a battle with the locals at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island.) The missionaries destroyed the boards they found, but by 1895, Hawaiians once again were riding the gentle swells. The Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Auction’s featured board, to which organizer Randy Rarick has assigned a presale value of $10,000, dates from an era when Hawaiians were resisting a U.S.-backed effort to overthrow the archipelago’s native monarchy. In that climate, surfing became an expression of cultural pride for many islanders.

Today the redwood surfboard represents the time and effort that Rarick invests in preparing for the biennial auction, which he established in 2001, and which will take place this year on July 20 and 21 at the Neal S. Blaisdell Center in Honolulu. Rarick—a former competitive surfer who also shapes surfboards and promotes surfing events, and who has lived in Hawaii since he was 5 (he was born in Seattle)—has spent much of the last two years gathering and restoring choice pieces for the sale. He defines vintage surf memorabilia as anything that is at least 25 years old. Surfboards account for more than half of the goods for sale, but other lots include promotional posters from such films as Gidget, Beach Blanket Bingo, and The Endless Summer; surfing tournament trophies; skateboards, which gained a following in the 1960s among landlocked surfing fans; a men’s wool bathing suit from the 1930s; and surf-themed Hawaiiana, a class of collectibles that features palm trees, tikis, hula girls, ukuleles, and other Hawaiian motifs.

Rarick conducts the auction every other year partly because of the scarcity of suitable material. “I crawl around under people’s houses and follow up on every call on a surfboard, seeking unique items,” he says. “They’re getting very hard to find. The collectors who have them tend to hang on to them. And when I get them, they’re often beat up from use. It’s rare to find them in superb condition.”

A presale exhibition, also to be held at the Blaisdell, will display all 100 lots. “It’s only together for two days, but it’s intriguing to see our history laid out in one room,” Rarick says. “I’ve had kids come up, walk around the boards, and say, ‘Wow, you rode these?’ and look at the itchy wool suits and say, ‘Wow, that’s what they wore?’ I’ve also seen 70-year-old guys caress a wooden board and say, ‘Oh my god, I rode one just like it as a kid in Waikiki.’ ”

The 2007 Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Auction, 808.638.7266, www.hawaiiansurfauction.com

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