Passion of Collecting
“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.
Surf Memorabilia Collector
"My surfboard collection has been whittled down to 100 really nice boards,” Mark Fragale tells me casually, as if owning 100 surfboards is a completely normal thing. Or, rather, that owning more than 100 boards is weird, but owning just 100 makes him a model of restraint.
Looking around his Windward Oahu house, I only see 25 or so boards, hanging next to each other throughout the family room and lanai like an art-deco, drop-down ceiling. The rest are either at surf shops or in “deep storage.”
Fragale has so many vintage surfboards that Rick Rarick, director of the Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Auction, personally visits his house with hopes he’ll part with a couple of boards for the sale. Fragale does contribute to the auction, but only if he has duplicate items that he’s willing to sell. A surf memorabilia collector since he was 16 years old, the 58-year-old surfer is a collecting purist. He collects everything in the surfing world from boards to books to posters to trophies, not to eventually sell at a profit, but simply out of a passion to have such things around. As if being up to your eyeballs in vintage surf stuff around the house isn’t good enough, he’s also the curator of the Honolulu Surfing Museum next to Jimmy Buffet’s Restaurant in Waikiki.
Fragale moved to Hawaii in the 1970s after a number of surf trips, and went to work for Hobie Cat Hawaii. He says getting into surf collecting early gave him an edge since it has only been in recent years that vintage surf items have become valuable. His collection is eclectic because surf history is eclectic. Did you know, for instance, that a guy named A.S. Twombly wrote a novel published in 1900 called The Surf-Rider : A Romance of Pagan Hawaii? Fragale has one of the few original books. And he’s got a three-foot-high wood tiki holding a surfboard that used to sit outside a surf concession shack on New York City beach. He’s also got every surfing magazine known to man. (His favorite: a 1962 Surfer with a cover featuring Murphy, a cartoon character drawn by legendary surf artist Rick Griffin.
Fragale’s not even sure how much the magazine is worth because, you know, what does it matter? It’s not like he’s going to put it up for auction. Even if Rarick begs him.
Vintage Jewelry Collector
Big Island artist Darlene Mandel stalks the wild rhinestone. And the wild bead, faux pearl and fake diamond. Sometimes she even pursues the real things: diamonds, jade, opals, gold and silver in the form of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches and tiaras. The bigger, flashier and gaudier the better. As long as they are old or, as collectors say, vintage.
She has literally tons of vintage jewelry in the Kona warehouse/gallery/boutique she calls home. The name of her business is Fabulous, which also describes her appearance and lifestyle. Bette Midler’s got nothing on Darlene Mandel.
She views collecting vintage jewelry almost as a contact sport. “You have to have an eye, a sixth sense,” she says. “You have to spot it. You hear it yelling at you. In another box. Even though you can’t find it, you hear it calling you.”
The first time you find a great piece of vintage kitsch is a thrill, she says. “It’s a big, old natural high.”
Nothing is too broken, beat up or bent to save and recycle. “Anything glitzy like a single earring or broken bracelet or necklace gets recycled into a new piece of jewelry.”
Like a lot of collectors, she sells the stuff she doesn’t love so much to buy the stuff she does.
“The most expensive thing I own is a retro art diamond and ruby ring from the 1930s,” she says. “I love it. It’s huge.”
She doesn’t say where she hunted it down. One can only guess that a dazed swap-meet seller is still recovering from the day a lady in a safari jacket and cat-eye glasses dove into one of the boxes and wrestled the diamond and ruby ring to the ground.
Ukulele were hard to come by when Clement Villanueva was a youngster in the Philippines.
“We were very poor back home,” he says. “Ten people shared one ukulele.”
I assume they took turns and didn’t all try to play the thing at once. In any case, the ukulele deprivation had a big impact on Villaneueva for which he’s more than compensated. At last count he had a collection of more than 130 ukulele, including 30 of the iconic Hawaii “cigar-box” ukes, many of which he has made himself. But his passion for the little four-stringed instruments has spread, curiously, to the hand-made cases in which ukulele are carried around.
“They are so pretty,” he says of the cases. “People admire them more than my ukulele.”
Cigar-box ukulele were first made by Hawaii’s legendary guitar and ukulele maker Samuel Kamaka. Villaneueva, who was a metal worker at Pearl Harbor until his recent retirement, studied an original Kamaka cigar-box ukulele and began to make his own. The problem is finding original 1886 cigar boxes.
“They are very rare and hard to find right now,” he said. “I get one or two a month at swap meets and at the shows.”
He collects original Kamaka ukulele and yearns for one special one. “I have so many ukulele but my collection is not complete until I find a painted Kamaka,” he says. “Hand painted in the 1920s. That one is $5,000. Hard to find.”
Yeah, I say, but what’s the deal with the cases. You’ve got 80 of them, why not sell a few?
“I don’t sell my cases yet because they are too pretty,” he says. And means it.
Tomoko & Colin Young
Kokeshi Doll Collectors
Tomoko Young is crazy about the Japanese folk dolls known as kokeshi. Perhaps, her husband Colin, thinks, a tad too crazy. How many does she have? I asked him.
"In the thousands," he says. "Some are still in the box from our last trip to Japan. Four suitcases are still unopened."
Tomoko, who is originally from Japan, says, "I already had some experience with folk dolls. I was interested in this doll. Soon it became huge and I could not take care of them all. We come back (from Japan) with plenty of kokeshi."
Just what are kokeshi? To the Western eye they look suspiciously like wooden pepper grinders with faces. Traditional kokeshi originated in Japan in the 1600s and were straight pieces of solid wood with enlarged heads. Only artists with permits could make kokeshi because the emporer owned the forests, Colin said. To this day, only artists in Japan who can trace their lineage back to an original kokeshi maker are allowed to make traditional kokeshi. After World War II, artists were allowed to make the popular "creative" koksehi, with heads that bobbed around. (The Derek Jeter bobblehead doll can trace its lineage back to those kokeshi "nodder heads.")
Tomoko is typical of many collectors whose passion transferred from one collectible to another. Before getting kokeshi fever, she was breeding and collecting championship show guppies. In 2003, Tomoko became the first woman ever to win the International Guppy Breeders Association’s top prize: Guppy Man of the Year. Of course, they had to change the title to Guppy Person of the Year.
Six years ago, Tomoko turned her collecting sights onto kokeshi and never looked back. She now is a leading kokeshi expert in the United States and is in the process of writing her only book in English about the dolls to help other collectors.
Colin has long since resigned himself to her love of kokeshi. "Her dream was to go out and get these things," Colin says. "I follow whatever dreams she has."
Charles Memminger is a national-award-winning humorist, screenwriter and author who lives in Kaneohe.