The case of the missing penny-farthing

Antique bicycle reported stolen, found within a week
Ron Vavalis' penny-farthing bicycle is shown in this photo taken before the 5-foot-tall bicycle was mistakenly taken by a man who thought a 'free' sign included the antique, priced at several hundred dollars.

Blame it on an unfortunately placed “free” sign.

A penny-farthing on display outside an antique shop on Seward Street was taken last week when a man mistakenly thought it was free, due to a cardboard sign that presumably referred to free magazines and other items on the sidewalk outside Mad Hatters Emporium.

The owner of the antique bicycle — which has a large front wheel about five feet tall and a disproportionately small back wheel — reported it stolen on Wednesday after it had been missing for a week.

The bike was later found in the possession of a man at the Mendenhall Apartments, said the owner Ron Vavalis, who inherited the bike from his father.

“It has no pedals so they couldn’t go far with it,” Vavalis joked during a recent interview, “but they took off with it, and somehow it landed over there at the Mendenhall Apartments with this guy (who) said ‘Oh, there’s a free sign on it.’ He thought it was free, and he took off with it in front of the gift shop.”

The man apologized and gave it back, Vavalis said. He said he will pick it up as soon as his friend lends him a truck.

“He was like, ‘You’re not going to press charges on me?’ I was like, ‘No, I just want my bike back,’” Vavalis said.

The age and value of the penny-farthing is different depending on who you ask. The owner of the Emporium, who offered to sell the bike for Vavalis at his shop, said it’s not original since it doesn’t have wooden spokes and is probably from the 1970s. It’s priced at several hundred dollars, but would sell for much more, in the thousands of dollars, if restored. Brand-new antique replicas of penny-farthings sell for about $1,500, he said.

Vavalis, on the other hand, says it’s from 1918 and has a value of about $1,800. He said his father received the antique from a man who used to tend bar for him.

“He had it for a good 20 years, he used to ride it around in the parade and stuff in the Fourth of July,” Vavalis said. “I’d like to get the bicycle pedals for it and keep it all original again, so I could get around.”

“Boy, getting on that thing was not easy,” he added. “Run and jump, I swear to God, it’s about five feet tall, and then you run and the handlebars are up here and you run and jump on it. It’s a crazy bike.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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