Noho Banjo and Ukulele Musing–The Dark Side of Collecting

UKULELE MUSING 27, 6 JULY 2019—A MID-YEAR BREAK FROM SONGS: THE DARK SIDE OF COLLECTING . . .

At the halfway point of the year, I thought I’d take a break from my stroll through the backstories of songs found in our Yellow and Blue Books and look again at our favorite little musical instrument—the ukulele.  In particular, I want to focus on a few ukes in my collection that, as some purists might contend, are of a clouded ancestry—i.e., FAKES.  Or rather, to me, HOMAGES.

Since I began my personal exploration of ukulele lore and collecting a dozen or so years ago, I have managed to acquire, restore, and display a goodly number of vintage ukes—well over a hundred at last count—thanks to the tolerance and forbearance of my wife, to say nothing of empty spaces in our house suitable for display.  These have come into my hands via swaps, tag sales, antique shows, and—needless to say—the internet. 

A tiny part of my collection.

Many of these are, of course, nice examples of fairly common, so-called “novelty” ukes from the 1920s through the 1950s that, when I started collecting, could be had for just a few dollars.  Several others in the collection are much more uncommon.  When and if they ever come to market, these command a significantly higher price.  But all are fun to own, restore, display, and—at times—play. 

There are, however, a few ukuleles out there that, among serious collectors, are known as “Holy Grails.”  These are the ones that rarely show up on the market; but when they do, can command prices that are way, WAY beyond the reach of my impecunious fingers!  What to do? 

To be quite honest, being a craftsman as well as a collector, I FAKE IT.  Scratch that!  I PAY HOMAGE.  I do research, work out designs and patterns, gather bits and bobs of vintage instruments, and—Bob’s your uncle!— the result is what I call an “Un-Holy Grail” for my collection.   I don’t do this to fool folks with a “counterfeit”; all are clearly acknowledged and labeled.  Rather, these additions help me to study and tell in a hands-on way the often strange, always interesting stories of the “royalty” within the family of our favorite little musical instrument.

More from the collection.

Here are four examples from my collection, with pics of some originals.

THE AERO-UKE

Here’s an original with the S/V ad.

In 1927, America went gaga over the aeronautical adventures of Charles Lindbergh.  This coincided with the same level of craziness Americans were showing for the ukulele and the Stromburg-Voisinet Company of Chicago hurried to touch both bases. 

Expect to pay well over $1000 for an example in good, original condition—whew!  Here is my humble effort, mahogany with a spruce top in a concert scale.  No; the propeller doesn’t work. 

Here’s my take on this one. It sounds pretty good!

THE KAMAKA PINEAPPLE UKE

Before World War II, Hawaii’s Kamaka Ukulele Company made a variety of well-crafted, high-quality instruments.  One of their signature products was a vaguely oval shaped uke dubbed “the Pineapple.”

Made of locally harvested koa wood, some were decorated with a waterslide decal of—what else—a pineapple.  This caught the fancy of tourists flocking to the islands in those days, particularly those interested in bringing home a high-quality ukulele.  The decal was, so to speak, the frosting on the cake and a koa Kamaka Pineapple in good, original condition—with an intact decal, of course—can sell for around $600 or so.  

An original Kamaka Pineapple.

Here is my lower-case pineapple, of koa but by an unknown maker, with a decal made with the magic of today’s computer technology.  A fun project that’s a bit better than a wall hanger, it sounds pretty good. 

Never underestimate the power of a decal!  A future project will be to make a copy of the still rarer, and much pricier, hand-painted Kamaka Pineapple.       

My next project!

THE JUNGLE UKE

This fabric-covered uke was made by the Regal Company of Chicago back in the 1950s.  I can’t imagine that they sounded very good with that layer of leopard-skin fabric glued to the sound wood.  That’s probably why very few were sold and why fewer survive today. 

If you run across one in good, original condition, expect to pay at least $500. 

I started my project with a beat up, bottom-of-the-line Hilo soprano.  I found some fabric from a remnants bin at the craft store and, once again, made an appropriate decal.  No.  It doesn’t sound very good, but it does attract attention! 

This is my humble effort from the remnant bin.

The fringe is an added touch from the selvage of the remnant—a design step above the original!  I guess it’s a Style-2 Jungle!   

THE POINSETTIA UKE

Back in the 1920s, the Gibson Company offered these as a special order and very few—probably only five or six—were made.   

This is a $10K original . . .

They used their higher-quality soprano uke models and had an artist on their staff hand-paint them with—of all things—a poinsettia theme.  My guess is that these were meant to be a Christmas thing but became a dud on the non-holiday market.  Nonetheless, there are only a couple of these that have survived over the years with the latest selling at auction for over $10,000! 

This is my $10 effort . . .

I had fun taking a beat-up mahogany soprano with a pearloid fingerboard and peghead (definitely NOT a Gibson) and, with a few tubes of acrylic paint and some gold and India ink pens, came up with this fun fooler.  Mele Kalikimaka!

So, for the purpose of transparency, I thought it worthwhile to discuss with you—my gentle readers—my drift to what some may call the “dark side” of collecting.  Done for fun, not for profit, I will keep at this as long as I have holes in my collection that only craftsmanship rather than cash can fill.  Alas, such is the life of one suffering from Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome! 

But I digress from my 2019 mission.  So, now, back to the Yellow and Blue Books for the rest of the year.

Stay Tuned!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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