Uke Tales: Finding a Jewel

A White Elephant Martin 5K

By Sandor Nagyszalanczy

Uke Tales is a regular series exploring ukuleles with an interesting story, a personal connection, or simply gorgeous instruments.

I’d previously written about my first “good” ukulele, a Martin Style 1, gifted to me by my generous college girlfriend who had purchased it for only one dollar (see Uke Tales “My First Real Uke”). I thought that her purchase was the deal of the century…until I acquired my second uke, which is what this story is about.

The story really begins when I left home in 1972, to attend college at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After my departure, my mom suffered from a fairly serious case of “empty nest” syndrome. I’d grown up as an only child, with a mother who had enough love and maternal drive to have nurtured a sizeable brood. Thank goodness, she quickly realized that it would be beneficial to redirect her energies towards new pursuits. Within a year, she and my father joined a cactus and succulent society and took a jewelry making class at a local adult-education center. Even more significantly, she decided to start her own part-time business buying and reselling antiques.

The author’s parents show off another find.

Instead of setting up a retail shop, mom spent a few hours a day visiting local antique shops, thrift stores, and flea markets searching for affordable treasures—sterling silver bowls, baskets, flatware and such, artistic porcelain figurines, fine Middle-Eastern rugs, vintage jewelry, etc. Then, she would re-sell these items to her well-to-do friends and acquaintances, earning a small profit in the process. She didn’t buy these items haphazardly; she knew exactly what her customers were interested in or collected, so she rarely bought something that wasn’t promptly purchased. Not only did this business help mom get over her empty-nest blues, but she was actually making money doing something she loved. I was very proud of her!


Now the reason I’ve delved into this bit of back story is that the subject of this tale—a rare and beautiful Martin 5K ukulele—was discovered during one of my mom’s antique-hunting expeditions. She frequented a host of small shops in the L.A. area, including a place called the White Elephant in Burbank where she regularly found good stuff. As I recall, she considered the shop to be one of her favorite “honey holes.”

Martin’s top-of-the-line 5K ukulele was originally produced from 1921-1938. Photo by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.

One sunny day afternoon mom called me out of the blue; we usually talked only once a week or so, and always in the evening. After saying little more than “hello,” she drove straight to the point and announced that she had found a Martin ukulele at the White Elephant. I could tell from the low tone of her voice (and noise in the background) that she was calling me from the shop where she’d found the instrument (as this was decades before cell phones, she was talking on the shop’s telephone). Her restrained voice made sense to me: My mom had become a seasoned bargainer who rarely tipped her hand by displaying excitement for an item before the inevitable haggling process began, where she negotiated a lower price.

Back in those days, I knew very little about the various ukulele models that Martin produced. I just knew that the more elaborate the instrument—purfling, decorations, etc.—the more valuable it was likely to be. When I asked mom to describe the uke, all she said was “fancy.” “How fancy?” I asked. “Very,” she murmured, then whispered “I’m pretty sure I can get it for around $100.” It took me about a nanosecond to say “BUY IT.” She said “Good,” and hung up. Later, she called me back from home to tell me she bought the uke for $125 dollars. She went on to say: “Funny thing, it must be really valuable, because the shop’s owner called me about an hour ago and said that he had a regular customer who’d heard about the uke and was ready to pay me three times what I’d just paid for it!”

The Martin 5K is a soprano-sized monument of koa and pearl inlay. Photo by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.

About a month later, I was sitting in my parent’s living room with a vintage hard-shell case in my lap that held my mom’s score. “I hope you like it” she said. When I opened the case, I was slack-jawed speechless. The instrument inside gleamed like royal jewelry: It was a top-of-the-line 5K Martin, one of the loveliest, fanciest ukuleles ever created. The ukulele was in excellent, original condition, its body made from the highest-grade figured curly koa wood bound with ivoroid and abalone purfling, front and back and around the soundhole. Exquisite inlays adorned the ebony fingerboard and koa-overlaid headstock. I didn’t know if I should play it or wear it like a fantastically bedazzled musical broach!

The Martin 5K soprano features an elaborate torch design, carved from pearl and inlaid into the koa headstock. Photo by Sandor Nagyszalanczy

But play it I did. And that 5K sounded just as sweet as it looked. At the time, I didn’t even know how incredibly valuable it was—and what an astonishing deal my mom had gotten! I offered to reimburse her for it, but being the generous person she was, she said “well, your birthday is just a month away…” I’ve kept and cherished that uke for the past 36 years since my mom gifted it to me. But as much as I love that uke, I love the story and memory of my mom’s epic find even more.