Surf legends up for sale


POSTED: Sunday, October 18, 2009

LOS ANGELES » Mark Blackburn is “;cutting the leash”; on his surfing memorabilia, “;changing zones”; to “;shred another way,”; just hanging loose dude.

The Hawaiian collector isn't hanging up his stick or giving up the sport, just the stuff that came with it, he said, so he can focus on his first love: Polynesian art.

Auction house Bonhams & Butterfields will put 30 lots of Blackburn's surfing history on sale tomorrow. Preview days began Friday and continue through today. A preview of the sale was held in New York Sept. 9-11.

The most impressive, and Blackburn's favorite item in the collection, is called “;The Duke's Hands.”; It is expected to bring between $8,000 and $12,000, said Matthew Haley, Bonhams' specialist in fine arts and manuscripts.

They are actual hand prints of the late Duke Kahanamoku, “;the father of surfing,”; on two letter-sized sheets of paper dated Feb. 16, 1943. Kahanamoku's hands measure 9 inches long and 6 inches wide.

“;They show you the power of his surfing skills,”; Blackburn said in an e-mail. “;As we all know, it's all about paddling and getting into the wave early. I will miss these as I had them hanging in my office.”;

Blackburn never met Kahanamoku because he was too young and wasn't surfing then. “;Today I live only a few doors down from his house at Black Point, and there's not a day that passes that when I go by his house I don't think of this amazing Hawaiian,”; he wrote.

Kahanamoku set gold medal swimming records in the 1912 and 1920 Olympics, and in 1929, and rode a wave for more than a mile at Waikiki, the longest ride ever recorded.

Surfing is about the only thing Blackburn didn't do when he was young.

He had a serious coin collection by the time he was 10, was a dealer by the age of 13 and by 19, was a self-made millionaire. As a teenager, he found out you could buy rare gold coins at bullion value from Swiss banks and resell them to collectors at a substantial profit.




        Bonhams & Butterfields



The author of seven books, most of them catalog-style, including “;Surf's Up: Collecting the Longboard Era,”; he says the best book is yet to come. Titled “;Polynesia—The Mark and Carolyn Blackburn Collection”; by Adrienne Kaeppler from the anthropology department of the Smithsonian Institution, the book will feature the collections of Blackburn and his wife of 30 years.

The Blackburns have several major items on loan to a museum in Bonn, Germany, where Kaeppler curated a show of Polynesian art, he said.

The 30 lots of surfing memorabilia going on sale simultaneously in Los Angeles and New York include a couple hundred items, Haley said. He expects all the items to sell because the material is young and the items are reasonably priced.

Everything in the collection is paper except a black woolen bathing costume made by Keystone Knit of Philadelphia.

It measures 31 inches long and is paired with a letter believed to be from John “;Hawkshaw”; Paia, best known for playing the ukulele on his surfboard to John B., a man who apparently had been his lover, Haley said.

There are a few dings in some items, but most are in excellent condition, Haley said.

There is a copy of the Ronald Blake Drummond book “;The Art of Wave Riding.”; The first edition, presentation copy is inscribed and considered “;beyond rare”; by surfing historian Mark Hayes, Haley said.

Haley hopes surfing museums and serious collectors get the more unusual pieces, but “;I would also hope some of the items would go to younger collectors and people starting out. It's not inordinately expensive material, but it's rare. It's not often you actually get the opportunity to acquire it,”; he said.

The 1950s and 1960s marked surfing's golden age. “;You are not talking about many generations ago. There will be caches of these things turning up in garages over the next few years. We are looking at a market that will only grow,”; Haley said.

Blackburn, who broke with tradition and allowed the auction house to use his name in the sale, and his family own Mauna Kea Galleries in Hawaii, an Oriental rug store in Lancaster, Pa., and are involved in several environmental efforts.

Topping the list is conservation of the federally protected wedge-tailed shearwater birds at Black Point neighborhood near Diamond Head.

Much of that effort is concentrated at the 1-acre Freeman Shearwater Preserve, a gift from Buck and Doreen Freeman to the Hawaii Audubon Society. Blackburn said it is “;the most expensive piece of habitat on the planet per square foot at $7 million.”;

His wife Carolyn has federal and state rehabilitation permits and is paying and caring for a rare Hawaiian stilt. There are fewer than 1,000 in existence, Blackburn said.

He said he still considers surfing a spiritual experience and hits the water daily when he can. The sport also appealed to non-surfer Haley.

“;I like the idea and will have to try,”; he said. “;I'm not going to California or Hawaii though. I would make myself look like a prat. I will try small waves somewhere.”;