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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Reynolds Beal; "Early Moonlight, Newport Harbor," oil; signed; 1920; sold: $57,500. Photo courtesy of Shannon's
Imagine, if you will, a time when trade, fame, conquest and exploration came through sailing the seas.

Terrible gales. Muffled in fog. Early sailors probed the darkness as days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and sometimes years. The sea served as a highway for explorers to push back the edge of the known world.

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) it’s always ourselves we find in the sea,” the poet E. E. Cummings said. His words capture that deep-rooted connection.

One way early shipmasters guaranteed their fame and immortality was through portraits of themselves and the ships they sailed. The paintings would live on long after they were gone and bring the era to life for later generations.

Nowadays, nautical paintings are treasured objects for collectors. Many of the ardent collectors are boat owners themselves but others are simply fascinated by the lore of life and times from long ago.

Ship portraiture collector’s fancy changed throughout history. Early American ship paintings followed in the steps of the Dutch tradition with accurate and detailed broadside views.

By the mid-19th century, full-sails and speedy clipper ships were popular. Dramatic action pitting man against nature was fashionable in the later-19th century. The Hudson River School painters pictured a more awe-inspiring relationship between man and the sea.

Prevailing attitudes shaped the artist’s brush. Sometimes romantic. Other times figurative, impressionistic or modern. The basic fascination with the subject matter remained.

Valuing nautical art is similar to other areas in fine art. Value depends on a number of factors. The artist is crucial. Is he well known? That is, does his name show up in the art reference books and price guides? Does he have a track record at auction or in gallery sales?

Is the painting signed? Without a signature, value usually takes a nosedive. Quality is another important factor. How good is the work? Size and subject matter also factor in. Bigger is usually better. In terms of subject matter, is it a historically important ship? If so, the value goes up.

What’s the condition? Collectors prefer works of art in original condition. That is, untouched and unrestored. You expect to see some discoloration and cracking in 100-year-old painting. But major problems such as paint flaking can significantly hurt the value.

Restoration can help stabilize and preserve the value. But bad restoration can hurt the value considerably. Do you know the history of ownership? The painting’s track record can significantly add to its value if it came from an important collector or museum collection.

On April 25, Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers in Milford, Conn., featured a selection of nautical paintings in its American paintings, drawings and sculpture auction. Here are some current values.

Nautical paintings

Frederick Schiller Cozzens; “1895 America’s Cup Race,” watercolor; signed and dated ’95; 21 inches by 15 inches; $4,600.
Antonio Jacobsen; “Gov. Goodwin,” oil on canvas board; signed; 11¾ inches by 17¼ inches; $5,463.

John Henry Mohrmann; “S.S. Endeavor,” oil on canvas; signed and dated 1894; 23½ inches by 39½ inches; $5,750.

Antonio Jacobsen; “S.S. Princess Anne,” oil on canvas; signed and dated 1897; 22 inches by 36 inches; $17,250.

Reynolds Beal; “Early Moonlight, Newport Harbor,” oil on canvas; signed and dated 1920; 26 inches by 36 inches; $57,500.

Charles Henry Gifford; “Racing off Point Judith, Rhode Island,” oil on canvas; 18¼ inches by 34½ inches; $68,500.

Francis A. Silva; “Sunset on the New Jersey Shore,” oil on canvas; signed and dated 1883; 26 inches by 40 inches; $147,500.

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