RAROTONGA, COOK ISLANDS, SOUTH PACIFIC
Oregon's a nasty place to be in the winter, dismal with gray skies and endless rain. Hence, when spring break comes along and our eleven-year-old daughter Alexandra has some time off, Managing Editor Cindy Banzer (my spouse) and I make sure our annual vacation takes us somewhere very far away and very warm. There are two further conditions: No cars and no auctions.
This year, we made the Cook Islands, our destination. Isolated and sparsely populated, they are located 2,700 miles due south of Hawaii.
The main island in the group, Rarotonga (pop. 10,000), is 20 miles in circumference, and surrounded by a lagoon.
Portland was a rain-swept 40 degrees when we left; 22 hours later, it was sunny and 80 degrees when we arrived in Rarotonga. Our respite from cars didn't last long. As we left the Cook Islands International Airport, I noticed what looked like an MG-TF at a rental agency across the road. Further investigation was clearly in order.
We settled into our spacious villa at the Pacific Resort, on the beachfront at Muri Lagoon. Picking up the Cook Island News, I read that there was going to be an art auction on Friday, March 21. Held at the Beachcomber Gallery, the Pacific Art Auction was a benefit for the Creative Centre, a privately funded organization that helps Cook Islanders with learning disabilities. It was to be the first auction ever held in the Cook Islands, and of course SCM would be there.
In the meantime, we paid the obligatory $10 for an official Cook Islands driving license, rented a bedraggled Kia Mentor (mentor to what, a Daihatsu Charade?) and two motor scooters, and arranged for a 4x4 Safari ride around the island in an open-back Land Rover Defender 110.
"Turbo-diesel, eh? Don't get those in the US," I said to our driver. He snorted, "Once you get rid of those piece-of-crap English engines and put in a decent Nissan, these things run pretty good."
The MG-TF turned out to be a fiberglass replica, built on a Triumph Herald chassis and also powered by a Nissan four-cylinder engine. (Is there a message here?) "There used to be a whole fleet of them," said the rent-a-car agent. "But their chassis just seemed to turn into rust overnight in the salt air." Not exactly a surprise.
Two days later, I went to the auction after sneaking out of a "Traditional Island Night" at our resort. I didn't regret leaving behind men in grass skirts knocking their knees together and women wearing brassieres made from coconuts.
At the auction, the atmosphere in the outdoor setting was festive, and every seat was taken. Ben Bergman, director of the Beachcomber Gallery, remarked, "We weren't sure how things would go, this being the first auction, and we're delighted to see so many people here."
There were 180 bidders' numbers issued, and the total take for the evening, nearly US $20,000, was more than twice the goal. The art offered ranged from amateur pretty-fishie paintings to sophisticated pieces evocative of the island culture. High sale of the evening was a painting by a Samoan artist, Fatu Feu'u, titled "Ole Atalili Poto," which brought US $2,300.
John Kenning, a professional auctioneer who lives on the island and commutes to New Zealand and Australia to work, was as sophisticated and charming behind the podium as anyone I've seen under the Bonhams or Christie's banner. He knew how to read his crowd, when to ask for more, when to wait for a bid and when to bring the hammer down.
As I listened to the animated chatter from the crowd and watched the enthusiastic bidding, I thought about all the auctions I've been to, all over the world, and what they have in common. Whether it's Persian rugs, vintage wines, paintings or collectible cars, auctions are where a community comes together to determine values.
Just as important, a live auction is a chance to see old friends and make new ones. They offer an opportunity to make predictions about what things are worth, and then find out, when they cross the block a few minutes later, whether you were right or wrong.
And at a charity auction like this, they are a chance to spend way too much, knowing that it's all for a noble cause.
Most of our time in Rarotonga, and on the neighboring atoll of Aitutaki, was spent lollygagging on the white sand beaches, hiking through tropical rain forests and scuba diving in crystal-clear lagoons. But a memory that will stand out is the auctioneer at the Beachcomber on that hot, tropical evening, peering down at a bidder in the front row and uttering a phrase I've heard so many times before. "You've come this far with me, sir. Don't lose this magnificent piece for just $100."
A QUICK RESOLUTION
It was barely 18 months ago that we were writing in these pages about the terrible events of September 11. Now, our men and women are at war, halfway around the world. While armed conflict is indeed a terrible thing, we are well-served to consider the words of the 18th-century British philosopher Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
We pray that the resolution will be as quick in coming as it appears it will be at this writing, and that our troops return home safely, and in a timely fashion.
ON THE COVER
Summer is near, and it is only fitting that our thoughts should be of classic English convertibles, lush countrysides and romance.
English artist Alan Fearnley was born in Yorkshire and studied at Batley College of Art. His work has been collected in two books, The Railway Paintings of Alan Fearnley and The Classic Car Paintings of Alan Fearnley.
Fearnley's paintings can be found in the corporate offices of Rolls-Royce, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, as well as in private collections. His depiction of a red Ferrari Dino was featured on the cover of the April 2001 SCM.
The piece on this month's cover, featuring a 1962 XKE, is titled "Summer of '62." An edition of 500 prints, each sized at 22x17 inches, has been made, and they are offered by Steve Austin's Automobilia in Canby, Oregon. Regularly priced at $210, they are available to SCM readers for just $175, US shipping included. (800/452-8434, www.steveaustinsautomobilia.com)