Passion of Collecting
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“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”
I was thinking of that quote from the eminently obscure German philosopher Walter Benjamin as I walked among tables piled high with the chaos of memories at the Wiki Wiki Vintage Collectibles and Hawaiiana Show not long ago. I often think of eminently obscure German philosophers while pawing through tables covered with vintage jewelry, jade, jammies, coins, curios, cookbooks, prints, purses, posters, beads, baskets and belt buckles. Not to mention a myriad of other curious knick-knacks, gewgaws and doodads. The room was crowded and noisy and smelled vaguely of the inside of an old suitcase. One table looked like someone had dumped a chest of (presumably) costume jewelry from the Pirates of the Caribbean Disney exhibit upon it. Hidden among the profusion of confusion throughout the room was an East German pilot’s hat ($30), a Primo beer bottle opener ($12) and one of those squarish Pan Am bags schoolkids used to use to tote their books. (Whoever thought the Pan Am bag would outlast the airline?) To the naked eye the “collectibles” looked like, if not junk, then the kind of stuff you usually want to get rid of.
But I was wrong. In the weeks following my visit to the collectibles show I got to know several of the collectors and while I cannot report that they are completely normal, I came to realize that each shared an intense, almost feral drive to seek out and acquire the items that spur their passion.
Whether it is vintage dolls, aloha shirts or artifacts rescued from long-departed Island restaurants (Kau Kau Corner ashtray: $24), an amazing variety of objects provokes the same level of passion in whoever seeks them. It is as if all collectors, no matter what treasures they hunt, seem to share some kind of rogue collecting gene that the general population doesn’t possess. And collectors sometime transfer that passion from one type of collectible to an entirely different one.
Kahuku seventh-grade science teacher Brett Kewish, for example, developed a fascination for vintage martini shakers (“I think drinking alcohol had something to do with it,” he said) and put together an impressive collection before eventually transferring his passion to surfing memorabilia. Tomoko Young, who now has a vast collection of wooden kokeshi dolls from Japan, first focused her passion on championship show guppies.
There are thousands of collectors who form themselves into thousands of collectors clubs that come together under the National Association of Collectors Clubs, a veritable collection of collectors, if you will. They stage events, shows and auctions, the apparent goal being to sell off some of their least favorite treasures (or duplicates) so they can buy some other item that will make their collection complete.
Hawaii’s two major collectors events take place at the Neal Blaisdell Center on July 17 and 18: the Hawaii All-Collectors Show and the Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Auction. These yearly events constitute the Superbowl of Collecting in Hawaii and make the little Wiki Wiki collectibles show I went to look like a garage sale.
Randy Rarick, promoter of the surf auction and executive director of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, spends a year coaxing surfing memorabilia collectors to part with everything from celebrity-signed surfboards to classic surf-movie posters and magazines, but for a good cause.
“We sell it and they get 90 percent of the auction price and 10 percent goes to our charities,” he said. Those charities include the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, the Surfrider Foundation and the Surfing Heritage Foundation. Rarick points out that the reason the surf collectible market has gotten so huge is because surfers from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s have grown up enough to be able to acquire tangible pieces of surfing history.
But, really, they’ve just transferred the passion they had for riding waves to a passion for the hunt. They’ve become collectors.
Vintage Toy Collector
“I’m trying to see if I can afford the teddy,” Dale Cripps tells me. He’s not talking about a woman’s undergarment or a stuffed bear. He’s talking about the Teddy: Teddy Roosevelt. Specifically, a roughly eight-inch-tall toy figure produced by the Albert Schoenhut Co. in 1909. Schoenhut was a Philadelphia toy maker who put out collections of figures like the 135-piece “Schoenhut Circus” and “Teddy’s Adventures in Africa” to mark the president’s famous safari.
Cripps is a gemologist by trade but a rabid Schoenhut figures collector by inclination. He talks about gems matter of factly but becomes animated when talking about his Schoenhut collection. He’s got almost the whole circus, tent and all, staged on the dining-room table of his townhouse in Aiea. There are animals, clowns, ring masters, acrobats … the whole, well, menagerie.
“All the animals are poseable,” he says. “That’s what makes the circus so exciting.” I’m not sensing the excitement personally but I am sensing his passion. “I just acquired this guy,” he says, holding up a wooden, glass-eyed giraffe. “I probably have four or five elephants, so I’m doing pretty good.”
Pretty good. But not great. Because he really wants the Teddy. And Teddys are rare. Expensive, too. They can cost up to $3,000 if you can find them, while the giraffe was a relative steal at $800.
“It’s a struggle for me today to acquire pieces and pay the rent,” he says. “But I’m not afraid to spend the money before I’ve been to the grocery store if something really good comes along.”
Like most of the collectors I’ve met, Cripps sells some items from his collections to buy the pieces he really wants. But he says he won’t sell the Schoenhuts, not even one of the elephants. Instead, he sells pieces from his vintage battery-operated-toy collection.
He tells me conspiratorially, “I was just offered a Teddy last night for $1,800. It was in pretty good shape.”
I’m sensing those elephants aren’t so safe after all.