Sport

Surf memorabilia

A classic slacker pursuit has created a century’s worth of very serious collectables. Simon de Burton catches the wave.

July 01 2010
Simon de Burton

When Florida-based investment analyst Steve Sjuggerud tires of crunching numbers, he simply dons his shorts, picks up his surfboard and heads for the ocean. But unlike most riders, Sjuggerud is as likely to take to the water on a vintage board from The Beach Boys era as on a 21st-century model, as he’s one of a growing number of enthusiasts to have jumped on the surf memorabilia “band board” as it heads for the crest of a wave.

Demand is soaring for boards, trophies and ephemera dating back almost a century to the beginnings of the modern sport, with the most desirable objects fetching tens of thousands of dollars at specialist auctions and over the internet. Understandably, the key collecting hot spots follow the waves: Hawaii, southern California and Australia’s Sunshine Coast.

Although fans began accumulating magazines and memorabilia decades ago, it wasn’t until 1996 when American collector Danny Brawner auctioned 100 long boards from the 1950s and 1960s for a total of more than $100,000 that the investment potential of surfing items came to be recognised.

Sjuggerud, 38, began collecting seriously around six years ago, having already built up an impressive library of surfing books, and now his 20-strong arsenal of vintage boards includes one that belonged to nine-times world champion Kelly Slater and a rare Downing Gun board designed by 1950s pioneer “big wave” rider Greg Noll.

“I think anything that made people feel free during their late teens has the potential to become collectable,” says Sjuggerud, who is also the associate publisher of a coffee-table-quality surf magazine called Standup Journal. “The old wooden boards made before the start of the fibreglass era in the 1960s are often quite beautiful, and extremely rare, especially the Hawaiian ones carved from planks of redwood up to 100 years ago. They represent the birth of the sport, while the early big-wave boards of the late 1950s and 1960s are redolent of a small crew of guys who put their lives on the line just to see how big a wave they could paddle into and ride.

“There were few surfing pioneers until the early 1960s, so the supply of vintage boards before then is small – yet demand is growing exponentially because surfing has become a mainstream sport. If even a tiny fraction of those surfers become interested in vintage boards, prices will go crazy,” predicts Sjuggerud.

Hawaii surfing veteran Randy Rarick concurs, as he has witnessed an ever-growing interest in the Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Auction he has staged every other year since 2001. “People are certainly buying for investment, because they see the boards as both historical items and as artworks,” says Rarick, whose main occupation is to organise Hawaii’s major surfing competitions.

“Among the boards we sold in our 2009 auction was a 1950 Bob Simmons ‘foam sandwich’ [one of the first boards to incorporate foam for lightness]. It made $40,000, while an early balsawood board from 1955 fetched $39,000. People are buying for a variety of reasons. Cirque du Soleil owner Guy Laliberté, for example, buys old boards as artworks to display in his Hawaiian holiday home, while another client, Reef footwear co-founder Fernando Aguerre, is a major collector and surfer who has accumulated hundreds.

“Vintage surfboards can be split into several categories,” advises Rarick. “There are the very early wooden ones that Hawaiians made from cut-down trees. Most of these rotted away or were destroyed – some were even burned by missionaries in an attempt to ban surfing altogether – and original survivors can be worth up to $40,000. The Waikiki plank type that was popular from the 1920s commands $10,000 to $15,000, and the later, laminated wooden boards that were made possible by the invention of waterproof glues in the 1940s fetch around $10,000. Balsa boards go from $5,000 upwards and then, of course, there are the early fibreglass and polyurethane foam boards that revolutionised the sport in the 1960s. These can cost as little as $1,000, or as much as $20,000.”

In all cases, the highest prices are achieved for the rarest boards in the best condition and/or those that have been owned by famous surfers or created by important, innovative shapers.

But it’s not just boards that attract collectors. Trophies also fetch impressive sums. The most sought after are associated with Duke Kahanamoku, a Honolulu-born legend who swam in the 1912, 1920 and 1924 Olympics, winning three gold and two silver medals. He is regarded as the greatest surfer of all and the father of the modern sport, and his prowess in the water is partly attributed to his giant hands, which allegedly had a span of over 12in. Last year, Rarick achieved $14,000 for the remarkable Kahanamoku family album containing photographs, newspaper cuttings and results lists.

Also valuable are the advertising posters and flyers for 1960s surf competitions. And promotional material for the first surfing movies, which were taken on tour to schools around the US to spread the cult of surfing, are especially collectable. Memorabilia relating to the 1959 movie Gidget – credited with launching the genre to the masses – is among the most valuable, while advertising posters for subsequent iconic surf flicks, such as Beach Blanket Bingo and the quintessential The Endless Summer, can reach up to $2,000.

Early surfing magazines also draw buyers and are rising in value due to the relatively small numbers of each edition. A run of Surfer spanning the publication’s first 40 years recently fetched $4,500, while books on the subject are also taking off. Last year, a 1935 first-edition presentation copy of The Hawaiian Surfboard by influential surfer Tom Blake made $3,965 at a Bonhams books and manuscripts sale that also included The Art of Wave Riding, a sought-after tome by California “canoe surfer” Ron Drummond. It fetched $1,830.

And now all this surf talk has me totally stoked, I must set off to jazz the glass. I might even get to hang 10 in the Pope’s living room without looking too much like a kootzky or falling victim to leash lag drag. Know what I mean?

See also

Collecting, Surfing