NAUTICAL GEAR NO LONGER GOOD JUST FOR SCRAP
Selection of items in nautical sale. Photo courtesy of Maritime Antiques Auctions
A huge Egyptian merchant vessel in search of copper ore sailed into thrashing waves on the Red Sea and vanished into oblivion with a crew of 120 men. The storm spared one castaway. What makes this vessel worth mentioning is that it’s the earliest known written record of a shipwreck, almost 2000-years before Christ.
The information came from the survivor’s journal. The author and the ship’s name are anonymous.
The journal goes on to reveal an unlikely narrative twist. The man reports being confronted by a 45-foot long dragon that took him to his den and promised he would be rescued by a ship in four months. Six months later the castaway was home telling his tale, a “tall” tale not unusual in the accounts of ancient seafaring.
Myth and mystery characterize the sea, a force that seeds new life and swallows up life. It’s no surprise that nautical things enchant us.
Whaling implements, ship’s figureheads and wheels, journals, sextants, telescopes, bells, scrimshaw, and paintings, the list goes on and on. Almost anything from steam or sail vessels built before the end of World War II attracts collectors.
Navigational and weather instruments, as well as chronometers made before the mid-19th century are especially desirable.
Irony surrounds the field because prior to World War II, almost nothing from ships was saved, except recycled parts intended for other ships. After centuries of deep-sea sailing few relics remain. Only in museums can you find objects made before the late-1700s.
Sometimes before a ship was decommissioned the last captain might keep her binnacle (compass holding stand). Salvage-yard workers routinely broke the glass from piles of brass ships’ lanterns, and flattened the metal to sell for scrap.
But times have changed. Nautical gear is valued today, a welcome decoration in homes, offices and restaurants. Interest creates demand. Demand creates scarcity, and scarcity often leads to reproductions. What looks old, could in fact, be brand new.
Ships’ wheels and lanterns are a good example. It’s important to ask, “Does this thing look like it’s ever been used?” Even if it does look old, brass items can be artificially aged in chemical baths.
Weight is a good indicator. Most reproductions are lighter than the original objects. But you have to handle the originals to know the difference. It’s one of those catch-22 situations. Sharp, uniform casting marks are a giveaway for new objects. But hand hammering on brass is a solid sign of age.
Ship portraits are another big area in nautical collecting, valued for their accuracy to the real ships they portrayed. Artists like 19th century painters Antonio Jacobsen and James Bard were prolific in the field, said to have each painted 4,000 works.
On Oct. 28, 2000, Maritime Antiques Auction located in York, Maine, and San Rafael, Calif., featured a Maritime Auction. Let’s take a look at a few highlights.
Ship in Bottle, 3 masted sailing vessel, city of Hamburg in background; 11 in. long; $220
Scrimshaw Walking Stick with whalebone shaft; 31 ½ in. long; $1,980
Ship Lamp, solid brass with a 3 tube whale oil burner; early American; 20 in. tall; $2,090
Ship Captain’s Desk, China trade camphor wood; circa 1850; 18 ½ in. wide; $2,200
Quadrant, rosewood & ivory, long brass arm; Alexander Fitton maker; 19 ½ in.; 1781-1787; $2,860
Barometer, marine gimbal, made by D. McGregor & Co., Glascow Greenock; $3,300
Ship Painting, oil on linen, Portrait of The Ned White, built in Winter Harbor, Maine, by Captain Seavy; 18 by 24 in.; $5,225
Deep Sea Diver’s Helmet, made by A. Schrader Son Inc. Brooklyn, N.Y.; $5,500
Clock, U.S. Lighthouse Establishment clock, made by Howard & Davis of Boston; 32 in. tall; $13,200
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