Published: July 31, 2018
Review and Onsite Photos by Laura Beach
EAST DENNIS, MASS. – “It is kind of a second golden age for scrimshaw collecting. The material that has come to market since 2005 has been of extraordinary quality and from well-known and well-formed collections. It has sparked great interest among established collectors and has made room for others to play who may have been shut out before.”
These words, spoken by Andy Jacobson, may sound like hyperbole. They are not. The Ipswich, Mass., dealer – who addresses the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s annual scrimshaw conference, sits on the Antique Scrimshaw Collectors Association’s board of directors and pens the no-holds-barred “Scrimshaw Market Report” column for the Scrimshaw Observer – is often withering in his assessment of the commercial arena.
But of Eldred’s foremost marine sale of the year on July 19 and 20, Jacobson and his colleagues in the trade offered praise. In the past several years, the Cape Cod auctioneer, building on its longstanding reputation in the field, has sought to dominate the marketplace for marine, China trade and whaling art. The company opened a second office in Mystic, Conn., a few blocks from Mystic Seaport Museum. In January, maritime expert Gregg Dietrich joined Eldred’s President and CEO Joshua Eldred and Vice President William Bourne, augmenting an already formidable team.
Two landmark collections – one formed by Thomas and Charlotte Mittler, the other by Arthur and Sara Jo Kobacker – have catapulted Eldred’s to the head of the scrimshaw pack. The Mittler collection garnered $2.1 million in 2016 and 2017. The first installment of the Kobacker scrimshaw collection realized $700,000 in November 2017. The remaining 91 lots, auctioned on July 19, drew $1.49 million including premium, more than double the estimate. Including property from other consignors, the 821-lot auction reached roughly $3.2 million over two days.
Ohio native Arthur J. Kobacker, who died at 83 in 2007, amassed a fortune in the shoe industry. Part-time Nantucket residents, Kobacker and his wife assembled an enviable variety of classic teeth by admired artists, plus fancifully decorated crimpers, swifts, canes and other rarities.
“Kobacker was right up there with Mittler as one of the premier collections formed between the 1970s and 1990s. Some people even thought Kobacker was better. Dollar for dollar, it was close. Handling this collection was an auctioneer’s dream. I think we had all the major collectors or their representatives here or on the phone. It gave me goosebumps thinking about how much my father, Dick Bourne, would have enjoyed it,” auctioneer Bill Bourne said afterwards.
Topping the sessions was a Kobacker tooth attributed to the Naval Monument Engraver. It sailed past its $20/30,000 to sell to Jacobson on behalf of a customer for $396,000. The price was just shy of the all-time auction record for scrimshaw, $456,000, set by Eldred’s in 2017 for a Burdett tooth from the Mittler collection.
“The key to this is that multiple hands, but one in particular, did a series of teeth copying places in Abel Bowen’s The Naval Monument, which reprinted woodcuts of significant American naval engagements of the War of 1812. Many of these teeth are backed with whaling scenes that aren’t copies,” Jacobson told us. One side of Kobacker’s tooth depicts the three-masted American war ship Hornet blockading the British ship Bonne Citoyenne at the port of Salvador, Brazil. On reverse is the US fleet under sail in the Mediterranean in 1815.
Several connoisseurs expressed admiration for a Britannia Engraver tooth with an imaginatively rendered view of a whale stoving a boat. Inscribed with the name of the ship Charles of London, it left the room at $192,000 ($30/50,000).
“The Britannia Artist was a contemporary of J.M.W. Turner. He is to scrimshaw what Turner was to painting – a prototypical modern artist,” Jacobson observed.
Another top choice was a tooth by the Pagoda/Albatross Engraver, which sold within estimate for $90,000. Its lively surface has a narrative quality, with framed vignettes reminiscent of pages in a book.
Nancy Druckman, who has never seemed busier since her retirement from Sotheby’s, penned the tribute to the much-liked Carl and Sonia Schmitt, collectors from Walla Walla, Wash., who gathered American folk art, some of it maritime in interest, and vintage cars. Highlights from the July 19-20 Schmitt offering – more Schmitt material is slated for Eldred’s August 1-3 Summer Americana sale – included an exceptional scrimshaw and inlaid sea captain’s lap desk and a reticulated panbone basket with marquetry inlaid base, $26,400 and $16,800.
“The Schmitt material did quite well. Nothing in the six-figures, but I was pleased with the lap desk with eagle; the reticulated basket; and the busk, $15,600. They all exceeded estimate,” Bill Bourne said.
Known as the “Map Tooth,” a mid-Nineteenth Century specimen engraved on one side with a detailed chart depicting New Bedford Harbor, Buzzards Bay and the Elizabeth Islands with a whaling scene on reverse doubled high estimate to sell for $168,000.The tooth last surfaced in August 2016 at Osona Auctions on Nantucket, where it crossed the block at $48,000. It was previously with Nantucket dealer Nina Hellman.
John Rinaldi, a Maine specialist in nautical antiques, worked out the meaning of the inscription “NH350” on the inside of the artifact, linking the “Map Tooth” and other specimens with “NH” numbers to the early collector Meylert Melville Armstrong, who amassed perhaps 2,000 sailor-engraved teeth beginning in the 1930s.
The “NH,” part of a private inventorying system, stands for New Hope, where Armstrong had a house. The collector’s story is told by Paul Vardeman in the Spring 2018 issue of Scrimshaw Observer.
The cover lot, a pair of large teeth attributed by scrimshaw authority Stuart M. Frank to Eli Bangs Jr, cooper aboard the Helen Mar of New Bedford between 1856 and 1861, passed without interest. Its failure was foreseen by experts who, in general, did not find the palette or imagery of the teeth appealing. That said, few pieces could have overcome the hefty $350/500,000 estimate.
“We were approached by the consignor with these teeth, and he had a figure below which he wouldn’t go. I felt it was a strong estimate, but you don’t know in this market. You put the keys in the ignition and go,” Bourne said. In fairness, it should also be added that no single individual has done more than Frank, the energetic organizer of scholarly gatherings and publications, to encourage scrimshaw’s second golden age.
Surveying his firm’s banner sale, Joshua Eldred noted, “Exceptional items brought exceptional prices and most other prices were consistent with the current market. We are extremely pleased by the overall results of the sale. It’s been our strongest marine sale in years.”
Prices, including buyer’s premium, are as reported by the auction house.
Eldred’s is at 1483 Route 6A. For information, 508-385-3116 or www.eldreds.com.
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