Published: July 19, 2016
By Laura Beach
EAST DENNIS, MASS. – Robert C. Eldred Co., Inc., the Cape Cod auction house with a long track record in the area of marine and sporting art, has been selected to sell the scrimshaw collection of the late Thomas Mittler. The firm plans to offer the trove in three sessions in 2016 and 2017.
Eldred’s president Joshua Eldred said the collection, which his firm is just beginning to unpack and catalog, consists of roughly 200 items, including engraved whale’s teeth, panbone and baleen pieces, and utilitarian items such as pie crimpers, watch towers and busks. Among sale highlights is a much coveted “Susan’s Tooth,” carved by Frederick Myrick aboard the whaling ship Susan of Nantucket.
William Bourne, head of Eldred’s Americana and Maritime departments, said the sale is reminiscent of the major single-owner sales organized by his father, Cape Cod auctioneer Richard A. Bourne, who brought to market the Bennett collection in the 1960s and the Cohen collection, featuring pieces gathered by Norm Flayderman, in 1989. Bill Bourne also recalled Richard A. Bourne’s private sale of the Eldridge Whaling Museum collection to Barbara Johnson.
Thomas Mittler, a Midwestern industrialist who died in 2010, began collecting scrimshaw in 1969. His holdings are documented in Through the Eyes of a Collector: The Scrimshaw Collection of Thomas Mittler by Nina Hellman, who described the assemblage as the best to come on the market since the Barbara Johnson whaling collection was dispersed in the 1980s and 1990s.
In a 2015 interview with Antiques and The Arts Weekly, Hellman, a Nantucket, Mass., dealer and scrimshaw authority, said, “Tom was initially drawn to scrimshaw because he liked tools and the idea of people making things. He was genuinely fascinated with the idea that people who were untrained and away from home developed an art that told their story. He was deeply interested in the lives of these people.”
Hellman said, “Tom liked large teeth. Most collectors of scrimshaw do. He had examples of naval engagements and whaling scenes, but he also liked teeth with women. He liked panbones because they very often feature panoramic views. He was open to unusual things that other collectors might ignore, but was also drawn to popular items such as crimpers. His ditty boxes were spectacular. The one thing Tom never really got into was canes.” Hellman’s favorite pieces were three teeth by the Arch Engraver, a matched pair of teeth decorated with women and a tooth by the Lady Wellington Engraver.
The collector’s widow, Charlotte, is said to be keeping her late husband’s collection of ditty boxes.
Mittler’s scrimshaw was originally slated for sale by Northeast Auctions. Company president Ron Bourgeault cited timing and personal considerations as factors contributing to his decision to give the consignment up.
“It should be a very important auction and a very exciting fall. We also have yachting artifacts from a noted Newport, R.I., collection coming up,” said Josh Eldred.
Eldred’s will preview the Mittler collection in its showrooms in East Dennis, Mass., and in Mystic, Conn. For information, 508-385-3116 or www.eldreds.com.
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