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There are fascinating stories behind some of our most prized personal possessions.
Story: Peter Barrett. Photos: Shannon Morris.
When I was a kid, it was all about Smurfs. Those blue, gnome-like plastic figurines were everywhere, in toy shops and even service stations, and I wanted to collect them all. My collection grew to about 40 before I moved on to footy cards. Fortunately, my mum stored them for me in their very own plastic mushroom house and four decades later, my own children play with them occasionally (although without the same degree of passion – each generation has its own fads and fixations).
As adults, we’re not supposed to have toys. But for whatever reason, certain objects can still occupy special places in our lives. Whether you obsess over a stack of rare books or keep a stick of furniture because it reminds you of your gran, we all have a few things tucked away that have survived garage sales over the years. Some of these things can be worth serious money, too. In most cases, these objects tell great stories. We share a few of them.
Object: Ceremonial kimono
Rose Chong, 73, has been dressing Melbourne fancy-dress party-goers and actors at her store in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy since 1979. Her collection of quirky clothes now numbers in “the thousands” but there is one item that is irreplaceable: a heavy-hemmed, ceremonial silk kimono from Japan that she bought in Portobello Road, London, in the late 1960s.
Before her life as a costumier in Melbourne, Rose lived in the UK studying art and moonlighting as a burlesque performer, where she often used to wear the kimono “with not much else” on stage. But things changed after she met her conservative, academic husband and followed him to Melbourne in 1973.
“I decided to hang up my G-string,” she says, adding that the kimono was the only item she brought with her on the boat to Australia. “I disposed of my other performance outfits but I couldn’t part with this one and I’ve always loved it because it’s pink. Since then I’ve sort of been trapped in a pink zone.”
Rose has seen countless costumes in the four decades she has been operating the business, which now employs 10 people, but the kimono remains a special link to her past. “I love it,” she says, guessing that it could be worth about $2000. “What would I part with it for? Nothing. I wouldn’t part with it.” These days, the kimono usually hangs over the stairwell and is rarely hired out to customers. “It has to be a very special occasion – it’s not suitable for people going to parties.”
Object: Hasselblad 500CM, medium format camera
Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s NASA used a modified version of this camera to capture images on the moon. Since then, the rise of digital photography has relegated analog film cameras to the obsolete pile and, for many, they are no more than a quirky object of nostalgia. Not so for Gary Wong, 33, who founded his analog-only camera store, Film Never Die, in 2011.
At the time, Gary had bought his girlfriend (now wife) a Polaroid camera, only to find he couldn’t source any film. He eventually found a supplier but had to buy in bulk, so he started an eBay store to sell excess film packs. That led to a garage operation, which led to his current Bourke Street shop, a hub for analog film lovers that sells cameras, film, does repairs and holds educational photography workshops.
Gary’s personal camera collection has grown to more than 40 but the Hasselblad, which he bought for $1500 in 2012, is his favourite. “For a medium-format camera it’s actually very portable, very modular and the lens is of a very high optic quality. In fact, it was produced by Carl Zeiss, one of the top glass manufacturers.
The quality you get from the camera is just stunning.” So far, Gary has used his Hasselblad to take portraits and landscapes on trips to Japan, Malaysia and other destinations. “And it’s a more pure photography.” Shooting film lets you concentrate more on the image and worry less about technology, Gary says.
India Robinson, champion surfer
Object: Custom-built surfboard
A distinctive shape in Christmas wrapping propped up in the family lounge room signified a new direction for Victoria’s highest-ranking junior female surfer, India Robinson, 17, from Jan Juc on Victoria's surf coast. India was 12 at the time and had, until then, been making do with hand-me-down boards from her three older brothers.
“It’s a white board with pink flowers on it and I rode it for a really long time,” she says. The board was made by Warner Surfboards in Sydney to suit India’s body size and surfing style.
Since then she has accumulated more than 20 surfboards and won the 2015 Under 21 Pro Junior Championship at Cronulla and the Under 18 Australian Championship at Phillip Island, in 2016.
So, how does that first board stand up to the others she’s had since? “It’s a bit slow now but back then I thought it was amazing. It looked a lot better because I’d been riding those hand-me-downs from my brothers so, to have my own and be able to surf a board made for me – it just went through the water so well and taught me how to turn the board properly and surf really well.”
Eddy Opmanis, vintage and collectables trader
Object: Grant Featherston three-piece lounge
Eddy Opmanis, 55, can still recall the day he stumbled across the lounge set that set him off on a love affair with mid-century modernist furniture. He had just seen a Grant Featherston catalogue at the National Gallery of Victoria when a friend contacted him about an unusual lounge suite he had seen while doing a house swap.
“I went to have a look and it was an elderly Italian couple in Warrandyte and they had purchased the suite new in 1953. It was in their ‘good room’, which was more like a show room. As I entered I wasn’t sure what to expect; they told me to take my shoes off and I did. It was one of those houses where a lot of furniture was still covered in plastic.”
Eddy immediately bought it and, 30 years later, he hasn’t had the heart to part with it, despite the two-seater and matching armchairs being now worth an estimated $30,000. “[I love] the contour and the curves of it; it’s almost insect-like, a very organic shape; and it’s by Australia’s most renowned furniture designer.”
In 1988 the NGV mounted an exhibition on Australian Modernism and Eddy lent his three-piece for display in the gallery's bookstore. While he started off collecting Art Deco items it was those mid-century curves that finally captured Eddy’s heart. “I can’t explain the feeling but when you find something… for me, the whole thing with dealing – it’s the hunt, looking for it. The selling part I don’t like too much.”
Sophie Rowell, violinist
Photos by Jonathan Cami
Object: Her violin
“Sweet caramel.” That’s how concertmaster Sophie Rowell describes the personality and sound of her most precious object, the thing that allows her to make a living as a violinist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: her violin.
“I bought [it] three-and-a-half years ago,” she says. “It was made in Naples in 1789 by a man called Pietro Mantegazza and it’s my pride and joy, I guess. I love the sound of it; I love that it’s shown me how to play it best and I feel very fortunate to have it in my hands.”
Sophie declines to reveal how much she paid for the instrument or where she bought it but says this is its first “stay” in Australia. She found it through a dealer friend and, like guitarists who pluck Stairway To Heaven on their potential purchases, she used two pieces of music to put her new instrument through its paces: the opening violin concertos of Bruch and Tchaikovsky.
“It just covers all the instrument and shows me what all the strings sound like and you get a feeling for all four strings by the time you finish both of those phrases.”
When not in use the violin lives in a silk bag (to minimise damage from temperature changes) inside a hard case, slung over Sophie’s shoulders. She never leaves it unattended in a car, even if she’s ducking quickly into a shop. “It’s not worth the risk,” she says. “It’s so unique, my fiddle.”