Published: October 30, 2018
NANTUCKET, MASS. — Bob Hellman, an authority on the history of whaling and noted collector of whalecraft, died on October 23, 2018, in Nantucket, where he lived with Nina, his wife and partner in all things nautical and life. He was 88 years old.
In their Nantucket home built in 1795, Bob displayed and curated a cache of harpoons, lances, spades, and other implements of the whale hunt. If you knew the collection but not the collector, one would be forgiven for misunderstanding the man. Although he collected these tools, he was an ardent conservationist and lover of whales — indeed, of all animal species.
Bob’s whalecraft collection is unique not only for the quantity and quality of artifacts, but for his meticulously detailed research notes and the beautiful, hand-drafted illustrations he made of the tools. He was as much artist as scientist and historian, and his collection represents in important ways the craft of collecting itself. His scholarship and observation skills enabled him to decipher makers’ marks, ships’ marks and other hand-wrought markings. By decoding and illuminating these marks, Bob shined a light on otherwise anonymous authors of the story of whaling.
Robert Edward Hellman was born on June 4, 1930, and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the first-generation American son of Theodore Hellman of Russia and Gladys Rauch of Austria. It was in the libraries of Brooklyn where Bob’s love of animals and his collecting habit began. He learned how to catch and study snakes, frogs, salamanders and turtles under the tutelage of a noted zoologist of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences on trips to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.
Bob earned a bachelor’s degree in herpetology — the study of reptiles and amphibians — from the University of Florida, under the mentorship of Archie Carr, the naturalist who started the movement to protect sea turtles.
On a field research trip to the West in 1953, an agitated rattlesnake sank one fang into Bob’s right forefinger, the other into his left, thus injecting the poison into his bloodstream, with two pathways to his heart. He survived the ordeal and documented it in writing at a level of detail characteristic of articles he published, even as an undergraduate, in science journals such as Copeia.
After brief employment as a fish and game warden, Bob was summoned by his father back from the swamps of Florida to the cityscapes of New York to enter the family electrical contracting business. Over forty years, he built a highly successful career lighting the parks, streets and airports of NYC.
Bob married Nina in 1955. They made a home and raised a family in Westchester County, New York. While working in the contracting industry, he continued to collect his favorite species until Nina put her foot down and said no more snakes and frogs in the house. That’s when he turned his focus to whales — not the living creatures, of course.
He began by making whale carvings. Soon afterwards, he spotted his first harpoon. No longer catching animals in the wild, Bob could nonetheless hunt for the tools employed in the historic whale hunt. He studied the history of whaling and learned to decipher the markings on whalecraft much as he had read the markings of reptiles and amphibians.
It was actually Bob who got Nina into marine antiques. Bob was known to say in jest that Nina was his biggest competitor. In fact, he was her greatest asset, and vice versa. Nina scouted for Bob. And if Bob spotted something that would have been redundant in the collection, he tipped her off. You can, in fact, find the occasional note in Bob’s collection database that says, in reference to a particular harpoon or other implement, “trade to (or from) Nina.”
After retiring in 1997, Bob moved full time to Nantucket, where Nina had opened her marine antiques shop in 1983. On the island, Bob devoted himself to the Nantucket Historical Association, where he gave lectures; researched and wrote articles for Historic Nantucket; and documented the museum’s whalecraft, scrimshaw and related objects. When the restored museum opened in 2005, Bob was instrumental in recognizing the significance of Edward Sanderson to the creation of the original collection. In addition, Bob advised and lectured at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Kendall Whaling Museum and elsewhere. He contributed to the studies of English whaling by Arthur Credland of the Hull Museum. He published in antiques journals and inspired numerous collectors.
Bob was an avid world traveller. Together with Nina, they sojourned the globe, learning about nature, culture and history on seven continents. Closer to home, he faithfully took his dogs, Ishmael, Quince and Barney, twice daily to the seaside Tupancy Links until he could no longer walk due to illness. At home, Quince was fond of sitting by his side and, unsolicited, holding Bob’s paw.
Bob will be remembered as the lifelong partner and loving supporter of Nina; as hero to his children, Gary, David and Chip, and his granddaughters, Jordan, Devon, Lainey and Casey; by his daughters-in-law, Bebe, Hiroko and Melissa; indeed by all who knew him, as the very definition of a gentle and good man.
Donations in Bob’s memory may be made to the Nantucket Historical Association at nha.org/join-give/giving/ways-to-give or to the Gift Fund of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders in support of their research of neurological diseases at NINDS, Financial Management Branch, NSC Building, Room 3280, 6001 Executive Boulevard, MSC 9531, North Bethesda MD, 20852-9531.
—Submitted by the family
November 28, 2023
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