Varied Treasures

Rubbish or rarity? Longtime collector Gerald Kwock weighs in on his own collection of fascinating finds.

While other kids spent their leisure time playing games and blew their allowances buying toys and candy, Gerald Kwock was busily creating an empire built on a foundation of gold and rare coins, milk covers (better known today as POGs) and scraps of paper adults threw out as trash.

At Ali’iolani Elementary School, while other kids threw out their empty milk bottles after lunch, Kwock faithfully dropped his empties into his lunch box every day and took them home. “Now, they’re collectible,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about the future. I just collected.”

With a prescience and financial acumen far beyond his years, Kwock, now 75, was about 8 years old when he started collecting rare coins, outsmarting many a grownup.

“Most dealers and collectors made their decisions based on the condition of the coins. They wanted brilliant uncirculated, but I would study old catalogs and based my picks on how many were made. I figured if they only made 24 and I got a junk one, it would still be just as valuable as the others.”

Every time he received his allowance money from his father—who never questioned his son’s obsessions—he’d apply it toward buying small denominations of gold coins at a time gold was selling for $35 an ounce, and rare coins such as three-legged buffalo nickels, for about $1.50 to $2 each. Today, circulated buffalo nickels are valued at $400 to $1,000 each. Perfect uncirculated coins are worth $20,000 or more, and Kwock’s coin collection is worth $3 million to $4 million.

But that is just a fraction of the “treasures” Kwock has amassed through the years. A collector’s collector, he has about 112 collections that range from the typical comic books and baseball cards of boyhood, to transistor radios and high school yearbooks. If you happen to have gone to school with President Barack Obama (Punahou Class of 1979), your yearbook is worth $1,000.

The allure of the big score drives many a collector, but Kwock is also driven by the history behind objects. He admits that some of his collections “have no value, except to the individual who owns it,” like his political cards, which represented a popular way to campaign for public office from about 1946 through 1969.

The cards bore an image of the candidate, party affiliation and the office he or she was running for. While strong candidates like Daniel Inouye listed their résumé on the reverse, others sought to make the cards more useful by printing football schedules on the reverse.

“They were very effective by the polling places because people had it in their hands while they were voting,” Kwock says. “The cards faded out after the legislature passed a law that candidates cannot campaign within 1,000 feet from polling places.

He says the collection has no value, because few other people now collect the squares of paper, although he recognized early that “anything paper is worth money because people throw that all out. It’s usually the first to go, so it’s hard to find, stuff like old newspapers, matchbooks, bus transfers, trolley car tickets, old bank checks, Hawaiian sheet music, Hawaiian food labels and Mutual telephone directories.”

At garage sales, he said he skipped the pianos, furniture and dinnerware, the so-called “good stuff,” saying, “That’s not my bag.” Instead, he made deals for “all the junk in the basement, because that’s where you find things, like Red Ryder rifles, Roy Rogers pistols or a whole case of Primo Beer from 1930, never opened. I would tell people, ‘Don’t throw anything away.’ Let me look and I’ll throw away the junk. If they throw all the paper out, it’s no good already.”

Other collections are more obscure, such as Kwock’s saloon tokens, valued at more than $300,000, at roughly $5,000 apiece. As the precursor to today’s customer loyalty cards, the brass or aluminum tokens from places like The Pantheon, The Empire, Commercial Saloon Hilo and Keystone Saloon Hilo were typically good for one free beer upon the customer’s return. Part of the reason so few can be found today is because they were immediately redeemed. Kwock laments, “It’s taken me 50 years to find 55 tokens.”

The heyday of the saloon token was roughly between the 1880s and 1920, when Prohibition, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sales of alcohol and alcoholic beverages, shut down bars through 1933, delivering a clear-cut end to the saloon token era.

These days, Kwock doesn’t do a lot of legwork in collecting. As one of the best known collectors in the state, people now bring their finds to him. He is also selling off some of his duplicate items, including yearbooks, and sales have allowed him to fund the Gerald W.G. Kwock Charitable Foundation, which funds scholarships.

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