Published: August 6, 2019
Review and Onsite Photos by Laura Beach, Additional Photos Courtesy Eldred’s
EAST DENNIS, MASS. – Spurred by ongoing research and a robust collectors’ circle, scrimshaw prices surged at Eldred’s July 25 Marine Sale. The Cape Cod auction house, which is dominating the niche market through a combination of astute relationships with experts and a concerted effort to land top collections, saw prices meet and exceed estimate on many of its most touted lots.
Tornadoes touched down in the region on Tuesday, July 23, causing severe damage in some communities. Eldred’s remained without power until just before 5 pm on the eve of the auction. Some bidders previewed the sale by flashlight. Moments before Thursday’s sale was set to begin, company president Joshua Eldred worked to restore the internet system upon which online bidding depended. Briefly delayed, the auction got underway without further incident. From nearby South Yarmouth, Mass., dealers Charles and Barbara Adams noted they were without power nearly three days after the storm.
Eldred’s “marine dream team” consists of Eldred, Bill Bourne and Gregg Dietrich, who together have roughly a century’s worth of experience. Bourne, vice president and head of Americana and marine arts at Eldred’s, told Antiques and The Arts Weekly, “The scrimshaw market has been really holding its own. The air is a little thin once you get into the six figures for a piece, but when something rare and important comes to market, it brings good money.”
This session, it was two teeth by Edward Burdett (1805-1833) and the collections of Paul Vardeman and Sam and Donna McDowell that drew the most attention. Ipswich, Mass., dealer Andrew Jacobson, whose market report is a much-anticipated feature of the annual Scrimshaw Weekend at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, underscored the significance of the collections, Vardeman’s in particular, as well as the landmark Mittler and Kobacker sales that preceded them at Eldred’s. “I’ve been saying for a while that this is a second golden age for scrimshaw,” he said.
Jacobson added, “It is selectively a very strong market. Considering the volume of pieces offered, I was surprised the market could absorb so much material. The areas that did well have traditionally done well. Swifts and walrus tusks are anyone’s guess now, and there seems to be resistance to paying real money for ordinary crimpers.” Of Vardeman and McDowell, the dealer stressed, “These were collectors who spent decades building their collections. They had good eyes, good taste and they took their time.”
In the view of Hyannis, Mass., dealer Alan Granby, “The sale showed some strengthening in the market generally for scrimshaw. In general, it was the best marine sale in the history of the company. Eldred’s has become the king of scrimshaw.”
Eldred’s frontloads its marine sales, so the big-ticket lots often come up in the opening minutes of the auction. First up this time was a signed tooth by Burdett, who died in a fateful encounter with a whale after little more than a decade as a seaman. Eldred’s notched a record price at auction for scrimshaw in 2017 when it auctioned a tooth for $456,000, including buyer’s premium that Burdett carved while aboard the ship William Thomson. This round, another tooth decorated by Burdett while on the same 1830-33 voyage went to a phone bidder for $384,000. A third Burdett tooth, also in the latest sale, achieved $180,000.
The two Burdett teeth presented this round were on the market for the first time, Eldred’s said. Both depict whaling scenes on one side with ships heading home on reverse. Both sold to phone bidders. The two most likely prospective buyers in the salesroom already have Burdett teeth, sources said.
A polychrome scrimshaw whale’s tooth signed by William A. Gilpin, circa 1835, crossed the block at $220,000. Gilpin decorated the tooth, which Dr Stuart Frank called a “watershed piece” and an “aesthetic tour-de-force,” around 1835 while aboard the ship Ceres of Wilmington, Del. Sotheby’s auctioned it in 2008 for $98,500. Its signature led to the identification of a group of work previously assigned to the Ceres Artist No. 1.
Sometimes called “the Dean of Scrimshaw,” Judge Paul E. Vardeman of Kansas City, Mo., is a mainstay of the annual Scrimshaw Weekends. Immersed in scrimshaw research, particularly after his retirement from the bench, Vardeman is credited with the discovery of the Britannia Engraver, a British scrimshander who is thought to have influenced the American carver Edward Burdett. The two hands had often been confused before Vardeman undertook his meticulous study. Vardeman also discovered the Locket Engraver and the Naval Monument Engraver.
“His work on the Britannia Engraver was really the most important revelation in scrimshaw research in the last 30 or 40 years,” Jacobson said.
In the sale’s catalog, Vardeman, who grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and as a boy was infatuated with paddlewheel excursion boats, says he bought his first whaling artifact in New Bedford in 1956 and first acquired scrimshaw from Norm Flayderman’s catalog in 1965. Around 1970, Vardeman and his wife, Connie, began spending several weeks a year in Nantucket, increasing his access to museums, dealers and auctioneers.
Vardeman’s fellow enthusiasts turned out in force to bid on 119 lots from the Midwesterner’s collection. A polychrome scrimshaw tooth by the Naval Monument engraver with an original whaling scene, second quarter of the Nineteenth Century, made $84,000 and a scrimshaw whale’s tooth attributed to William Lewis Roderick fetched $54,000.
Vardeman’s collection also featured crimpers, swifts and an assortment of tools, some rare. A scrimshaw panbone tub doubled high estimate to sell for $32,200, as did a carved and painted wooden trade figure called the Little Navigator. Probably a ship chandler’s sign, it sold for $84,000.
“The Vardeman collection was of particularly high quality. My client, a very well-established collector, bought the Little Navigator carving. There was a real bidding war for it, but it was a most excellent thing,” said Granby.
From the Carmel, Calif., area, artist and teacher Sam McDowell and his wife, Donna, were also Scrimshaw Weekend regulars. Sam, a noted scrimshander himself, and Donna formed a distinctive collection of moderately priced teeth, canes, swifts and novelties in whale bone and ivory. Their holdings also yielded tools and ship portraits.
After Sam died, Donna put the trove up for auction. Among highlights from the 88-lot group was a pair of walrus tusks, $45,000, engraved with nude women by N.S. Finney, a professional scrimshander who practiced in San Francisco. Connoisseurs battled for a diminutive Napoleonic prisoner-of-war bone ship model. Encased in a custom cabinet, it realized $22,800.
Four models from the collection of Dr Richard H. Strauss (1937-2014) were well received. The Rochester, N.Y., orthodontist nurtured a lifelong fascination with Napoleonic-era naval history. His pursuit led him to collect such rarities as the circa 1800 cased French or English model that hammered down for $6,000.
The market for marine paintings has not rebounded fully since the 2008 financial crash. Two steeply estimated lots, “The Stone Jetty” by Montague Dawson and an Alfred Thompson Bricher coastal view, passed at $70/100,000 and $25/35,000 respectively. On the other hand, Eldred’s had success with John Mecray’s 1982 portrait of the famous American clipper ship Flying Cloud, $30,000, and Tom Hoyne’s 1986 “Steel to Starboard,” which garnered $24,000.
Eldred’s next marine arts sale will be in November. “We will have a private collection that is small but quite nice, another Burdett tooth and a spectacular English tooth with a whaling scene. Some Vardeman pieces that failed to meet their estimate will be reoffered with lower reserves,” Bourne said.
The key to every market is knowledge. In the realm of scrimshaw, there is no better place to get it than through the Antique Scrimshaw Collectors Association, www.antiquescrimshawcollectors.org, or at the annual Scrimshaw Weekend, which will convene for its 32nd time at the New Bedford Whaling Museum from May 15-17, 2020. For additional details, go to www.whalingmuseum.org.
All prices quoted include buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. Eldred’s is at 1483 Main Street on Route 6A. For information, 508-385-3116 or www.eldreds.com.
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