I've been casually collecting vintage ski gear since I was 10, but it was only two winters ago that I started to use it. The 10th annual Antique Ski Race at Buttermilk, Colo., was the occasion, and it was like attending a classic car rally. The gear on display was gorgeous, a gallery of skis and poles that looked like beautiful period sculpture. Never-skied, apple-red Fischers fresh from the Fifties shared the racks with well-lacquered, pre-World War II Groswolds that undoubtedly had schussed miles of untracked, out-of-bounds snow.
I raced on 45-year-old Northland hickories with a pair of World War II, 10th Mountain Division poles. My leather Fabiano boots fit nicely in the beartrap bindings. My goal was to not break anything-brittle skis or bones. Unlike today's super sidecuts, the big wooden sleds of yore require mountains of room to crank a turn-explaining the upright, wide stance you see in old photos.
Afterward, I met Richard Allen, a colorful entrepreneur and hobbyist who claims to have amassed "the world's largest private collection of antique ski equipment, clothing and memorabilia." Allen, 45, lives in Pagosa Springs, Colo. He drives a former bread truck emblazoned with "Ski the Planet, Share the History." Inside are racks of amazing gear, from army ski goggles to actual seal skins to a pair of jet-black, signed Stein Eriksens handmade by Stein's father in the early Fifties. As we enter a new millennium, Allen is convinced "there'll be an exponential growth in the vintage ski market" because of the growing American fascination with anything retro.
When evaluating vintage gear, Allen looks at its condition first. The more pristine, the more valuable. For instance, unmounted and unscratched Fifties-era skis tend to be worth more than beat-up boards from the Thirties. Either way, there isn't much money to be found in your attic: Dealers typically pay about $25 a pair for old skis, though Allen did spend $400 for a pair of custom skis made for alpine pioneer Fred Iselin "just because I loved them." Allen also sold a pair of Zeno Colos, unmounted and in mint condition, from the 1950 Aspen World Championships for $1,500-but those kind of prices are rare.
Most skis on the market are mined from America's garages, attics and barn lofts. For some reason, Midwestern states are an especially rich vein for vintage gear. Because there are no official collector's books on the value of antique ski gear (as there are for coins, baseball cards and even beanie babies), several characteristics help drive prices. The older and longer the skis, the more valuable they are. Signatures, race logos and manufacturers' names add value. A wood ski is usually preferable to people buying for decorating reasons. Allen cites autographed Groswold skis manufactured in Denver in the late Forties and signed by their designers, including Dick Durrance, Friedl Pfeiffer, Toni Matt and Barney McLean, as being worth up to $1,000 if they're in good condition.
Two years ago I bought several pairs of original 10th Mountain Division skis and poles for $220 per set. The skis are fairly common, but the white bamboo poles are tough to find. (Many were made by the Orvis Company, better known for its split-cane fly-fishing rods.) The sets I bought were the only original white ones I've found for sale in 20 years.
That kind of discovery is what drives this market, what keeps people poking around yard sales and estate auctions. I'd gladly trade my new Atomic Beta Race skis for a set of black-and-white checkered bamboo poles that were hot in the Sixties when I was running gates as a kid. Antique equipment is unquestionably valuable. The rest-the old but not classic gear-means something only because of its sentimental worth, the memories evoked of past mountains, favorite trails and crisp January days. And who can put a price tag on that?