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A Primer for the Vintage Surf Market

Updated on June 8, 2016

What Does Gold Have to Do With the Vintage Surf Market?

It wasn’t that long ago that the price of precious metals, like gold, surged. Stores engaged in the business of buying and selling gold started to sprout everywhere. Folks holding bright yellow signs on street corners pointed you in the direction of where to hawk your private loot. Perhaps, some of you knew a gold bug or two and had watched a few hundred commercials explaining why precious metals were THE place to be investing your money in. The main reason: your currency was just an illusion becoming more and more diluted by the Federal Reserve’s non-stop printing press.

So? What Does Gold Have to Do With the Vintage Surf Market?

The main idea behind the “value” of gold was that it is a finite element. In other words, there’s only so much of it on this planet and you can’t make more of it. Just ask any alchemist. By that kind of reasoning or logic, those who are collectors, generally speaking, understand the value of the rarest items on this planet.

Taking into consideration the ancient “olo” surfboards, custom-shaped solid redwood boards, and perhaps the Pre-Incan “Caballito de Totora” (Little Reed Horse), the true antique surfboard market is far more rare than gold. While the culture of surfing began to be documented in the late 1700s, when the Europeans and Polynesians made first contact in Tahiti, it wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century that those early roots began to take hold and evolve into the diverse, modern lifestyle we witness today. This is changing and growing as each year passes and as the modern surfing era (late 19th to early 20th century) is slowing joining the antique era. In order to grasp this, I believe we have to understand the differences between the terms antique, vintage, retro and modern surfing eras. Let’s break them down, one by one:

The Duke
The Duke | Source

The Antique Surf Era

Generally, the consensus for defining an antique is based on the age of production for the item. The rule of thumb is that it must be at least 100 years old or more to be regarded as an antique. At the time of this writing, this takes us into the late-antique surf era when, in 1907, George Freeth was hired and transported to California, from Hawaii, to perform his surfing skills to promote the Los Angeles-Redondo-Huntington railroad owned by Henry Huntington. That last name might sound familiar because the ultra-famous Huntington Pier is named after him. It was also around this time that the “Duke”, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, was also traveling the world to show off his superhuman swimming skills as well as planting the first seeds in California for what would eventually nudge the culture of surfing into the sport of surfing.

As you could surmise, there aren’t many remnants from this antique surf era for collectors to get their hands on. What has been preserved are housed in museums, cherished in private homes or still yet to be discovered. However, the next generation, the first age of mass production for the surfing community was just about to get started. The epicenter was to be in California and it’s filled with characters and legends who will never be duplicated. This is the age of the vintage surf market which will soon be crossing over, in the next few decades, into the antique era.

The Vintage Surf Era or Surfing Gold Market

According to Merriam Webster, vintage derives from the French word vendage, meaning “the grapes picked during a season.” Like fine wine, it denotes a particular period of time. Specifically, relating to this thesis, the vintage surf era takes place between 1916/17 and stretches into the mid to late 1980s. Technically, while it shouldn’t be used to refer to items under 20 years old, I argue that, in regard to the vintage surf market, the line in the (beach) sand is the potato chip surfboard era of the early 90s and beyond, which I’ll discuss at the end of this article.

During this vintage surf era, we witnessed a hyper-evolution of the surfing culture. Surfers went from riding in stances stiffer than the boards they were on to leaving the face of the wave (catching air) and performing mind-blowing maneuvers never considered possible or even conceived. This very important period is just too vast and valuable to document in a singular post.

The crucial takeaway is that the vintage surf market era is currently accessible to collectors who understand why a Gregg Noll Surfboard from the mid to late 60s sold at auction this spring for $3300. As each decade passes, these precious items, as they are scooped up and preserved by those who understand their significance, progress towards the antique era. As time passes, in my opinion, their values will only rise even further.


The Retro Surf Era

There is a bit of confusion or overlapping of the terms vintage and retro. Technically, and I’ll refer to Merriam Webster again, retro is ”relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned." For example, I own two surfboards that are modern reproductions of T&C (Town & Country) and Rusty (Occy model) surfboards from the early to mid-80s. While nearly every person who has commented on them have called them “retro”, I argue that they are reproductions modeled after something retro. Retro to me, and let me be clear that this is entirely my definition, is an ORIGINAL surf item produced at the END of the vintage surf era. So, in my opinion, the retro surf era consists of original items from the early 70s to mid-80s.

Retro Mark Richards

The Modern Surf Era

This is the age of global mass surf production. We must wait some time before we can look back and grasp or recognize the items of value being produced. Perhaps, they will be a contest jersey worn by living legends like Kelly Slater or one of Rob Machado’s countless trophies. Essentially, these are items post 1990s, that must have a combination of scarcity and relevance. As I wrote earlier, it is the era when the neon lights of the 80s turned off and the surfboards became thinner and lighter than your MacBook Air.

In summary, there is about a thirty year period (1950s-1980s) where a serious collector of surf memorabilia should focus their attention. There are only a few more decades left before this vintage surf period begins to overlap into the antique surf era and those items collected increase, in my opinion, significantly in value. The final takeaway is that this particular collector’s market is not just for the elite. There are affordable items ranging from original stickers to rare t-shirts. Just like sports collectors, these items could and should be framed and handed down to the next generation who is taught to understand the value of surf gold when they see it.


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