MODEL SHIPS WILL INSPIRE FEEL OF HIGH SEAS
Selection of model ships offered in sale. Photo courtesy of Northeast Auctions
When sailing ships governed the seas 150-years ago, ship carving was the art of those who danced on the waves. It is an ancient craft, the most traditional. As old as sea travel.
Some say once the sea casts its spell, you’re never really free of it entirely. If that’s true, then it makes sense why the sea and ships are tightly woven through legend and ancient religion.
Always portrayed in human terms, ships are named. They are christened. They are referred to as “she” never “it.” They even take on a clear personality, as seen in figureheads that symbolized the spirit and personality of a ship.
“Build me straight, O worthy Master! Staunch and strong, a goodly vessel. That shall laugh at all disaster, And with wave and whirlwind wrestle!” That’s how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described shipbuilding.
Everything that can be said about a ship also applies to its miniature model.
Found in the tomb of Tutankh-amun were two dozen model ships. Other models unearthed include the merchant ship Cyprus from about 800 B.C., and a Greek warship from Sparta, 600 B.C.
During long voyages, 19th century American seaman carved many of the early models. Referred to as sailor-made, by today’s standard they were crude, because sailors lacked the suitable tools.
A jackknife might serve to carve the hull, different size punches created holes, tiny files shaped the fittings and various grades of sandpaper were used. Yet, these men knew their ships in-and-out, and their models were usually rigged accurately.
Cramped space aboard ship determined the size of models. Most were three feet or smaller. Materials used in building included whatever was onboard like wood, lead, and twine, paints and varnishes.
The hobby of building ship models is probably more popular today than ever. Some craftsmen still build from scratch. Others use manufactured kits.
Fully rigged, three-dimensional models are a favorite among collectors. But half-models, sometimes called builder’s models also attract interest. Half-models were used in conjunction with the actual construction of a ship. They show the entire length of one side of the hull, usually with modest deck detail and decoration.
Shipyards placed small value on half-models after a ship was built. Many were discarded. It was museums that often uncovered and preserved them.
Another class of scale models is the highly detailed ships presented to the owner of an important vessel when it was launched. Sometimes seen in glass cases, they often bear a plaque showing the details of the shipyard and marine engine maker. An average size could range from 6-10 feet in length.
Building and painting ships in a bottle required never-ending patience. But sailors had endless time on board to do it.
Size, quality of construction, age and the type of vessel determine value in ship models.
Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, N.H., featured its marine and China trade auction on Aug. 18-19. The sale included ship models. Here are some current values.
U.S.S. Pennsylvania; black-and-white painted hull; cannon at each port; 30 inches high; $2,012.
U.S. Frigate Constitution; scratch-built model; 35 inches long; $2,012.
Thomas W. Lawson; seven-masted schooner; black-painted hull; linen sails; 100 inches long; $3,737.
U.S.S. Constitution; cased model made from contrasting wood planks and fitted with cannons; 40 inches long; $6,900.
Dechmont; half-model Scottish ship; in case with mirrored back; 80 inches long; $16,100.
American, half-hull model, plank construction; 65 inches long; $20,700.
HMS Raisonnable, prisoner of war; British Admiral Nelson’s first ship; cased bone; fitted with cannons, life boats, and rigging; 30 inches long; $26,450.
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