Published: August 7, 2017
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Catalog Photos Courtesy Eldred’s
EAST DENNIS, MASS. – Eldred’s July 20 marine sale not only set a new record for a scrimshawed whale’s tooth at $456,000, it grossed an overall $1,749,000, about 25 percent over estimate. Following the record-setting tooth, 74 lots from the Thomas Mittler collection of scrimshaw were sold, including a group of three teeth that finished at $240,000 and another tooth that brought $120,000.
The 74 Mittler lots in this sale brought $799,280, and Mittler scrimshaw had been included in two earlier sales. Items other than teeth also did well in this sale. An exceptional panbone plaque realized $39,000, a fine whaling journal reached $57,000, and a Montague Dawson marine painting earned $84,000. The Mittler collection was considered by many to be the finest collection to come to the market since the sale of the Barbara Johnson collection in the 1980s. While phone lines were active, most of the rarities in the sale were bought by bidders in the tent.
The record-setting tooth, bringing $456,000, was the first lot in the sale. It was an early masterpiece by Edward Burdett, a pioneer of American scrimshaw. The 8-inch tooth is inscribed “Engraved by Edward Burdett of Nantucket Onboard the Ship William Tell” and depicts a whaling scene of the William Tell and the George and Susan on the obverse and a coastal view of the whaleship William Thomson on the reverse. It also shows a whaleboat capturing a whale. A stylized foliate vine, typical of Burdett’s style, wraps almost completely around the circumference of the base.
The tooth features extensive use of red sealing wax to color the flags, whale and whale blubber. The ship’s hull, whale, whaleboat, pennant, house flag and American flags are carved in relief. Based on shipping records, it is likely Burdett’s ship encountered the other two ships while in the Pacific whaling grounds, somewhere between October 1830 and February 1833.
Burdett was born on Nantucket in October 1805 and went on his first whaling voyage in 1822. He died in November 1833 after being entangled in line and dragged overboard by a whale. His scrimshaw pieces are widely regarded as some of the best and most desirable examples of the genre; the previous scrimshaw auction record was also held by a Burdett tooth. This tooth had been estimated at $160/210,000 and many expected that it might set a new record. The buyer, who preferred to remain anonymous, was in the tent and also bought other exceptional pieces.
Also expected to exceed its $120,000 estimate was a group of three polychrome teeth attributed to the “Arch Engraver.” From the Mittler collection, the teeth, which are from the same jawbone and have correlating scenes of active whaling, were discovered individually and assembled as a set for the first time by Mittler. These teeth depict closeup views of whales being captured, detailed images of whaleboats and their crews, an American flagged whaleship, etc. The group had been illustrated in Nina Hellman’s book, Through the Eyes of a Collector: The Scrimshaw Collection of Thomas Mittler, and went to a bidder in the tent for $240,000.
There was still another lot finishing in six figures. A fine example of a Susan tooth by Frederick Myrick sold for $120,000. About 30 Susan teeth by Myrick are known to exist and they have long been considered a “holy grail” of scrimshaw collectors. One side of this tooth depicted the Nantucket whaleship Susan with active whaling taking place off her bow. “The Susan boiling & killing sperm whales” is inscribed in a banner above the scene and the reverse also depicts an active whaling scene and is inscribed “The Susan on the Coast of Japan.”
The scarce 1955 book Susan’s Teeth and Much About Scrimshaw by Everett Crosby brought a healthy $1,440, but not from the couple who bought the tooth. Also from the Mittler collection, and finishing just under six figures at $96,000, was a tooth known as the “Vignette Tooth,” which also depicted active whaling scenes on both sides with a vignette inset showing a two-masted sailing ship at a full run. This tooth is also illustrated in Norm Flayderman’s classic Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders. A phone bidder took this one.
In total, Eldred’s offered 184 lots from the Mittler collection, across three sessions starting in October 2016, to gross about $2,195,000, far exceeding estimate, with 182 of the lots sold. Highlights from earlier sessions of the collection included a pair of polychrome whale’s teeth with naval scenes, which sold for $132,000, and a pair of whale’s teeth by Long Island whaleman Manuel Enos depicting colorfully dressed women, which sold for $120,000. In all, five lots from the Mittler collection topped $100,000. Mittler, who owned a large welding supply company in the Midwest and began collecting scrimshaw in 1969, died suddenly in 2010 at age 67.
This summer’s sale also included a number of outstanding whaleman-made utilitarian items, including swifts, crimpers, busks, tools, blocks, etc, and the best of them brought strong prices. Two crimpers did particularly well. One, in the form of a serpent with an open mouth, inlaid baleen eyes and ebony banding realized $25,200, and the other, with two crimping wheels supported by joined birds, a baleen handle and inlaid brass pique, earned $16,800. A whalebone busk, attributed to the “Bank Note Engraver” with an oval portrait of a young woman, birds, flowers and more fetched $5,400, and a baleen busk with a British flag, drums, cannonballs, with a verse on each side, attained $3,600.
The walrus tusks, as Rodney Dangerfield might have said “don’t get no respect.” They were an exceptional 34-inch pair with a large home, outbuildings, a church, a mounted rider, whaling scenes, birds, a steam engine and more, and brought $6,600 against an estimate of $12/18,000. Collector Andy Jacobson commented, “Even great tusks like these don’t bring much.”
Dr Stuart Frank, formerly senior curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and prolific researcher and author, later shared some thoughts on the Mittler collection, this sale, and some of the objects with Antiques and The Arts Weekly. “This was a strong sale and Eldred’s handled it well. Their splitting up of the Mittler collection was well planned and they did a good job with it. There were some very strong prices and, I think, some great bargains. The Burdett tooth was outstanding but there were two teeth by the ‘Britannia Engraver’ that were outstanding and were bargains. One sold for $20,400 and the other for $18,000. Research done about three years ago determined that several teeth that been attributed to Edward Burdett had actually been done by an English scrimshander known only as the Brittania Engraver. He worked very early, probably before Burdett, and we now know how to differentiate his work from that of Burdett. I know that some collectors only want American scrimshaw but these other pieces deserve far more interest.
“Also a very good buy was the pair of walrus tusks. They were done by J.A. Tuthill, who worked on Long Island. One of these tusks, amongst other things, depicts a steam locomotive, and I think that it may have been done at the time trains first came to that area. James Fenimore Cooper, in Sea Lion, published in 1849, mentions the coming of the trains to the area, and I think there may be a connection between the tusks and the book. To me, they brought just about ten percent of their true value.
“The two Roderick pieces were also good buys,” Frank continued. “He’s the best of the English scrimshaw makers, but the prices may have been held back by the fact that he’s not American. Another interesting tooth was one by an unidentified artist. It’s quite distinctive as the sea resembles the profile of a dog. A very similar piece is in the John F. Kennedy collection. So, in a few words – the scrimshaw market is healthy, and Eldred’s did a great job with the Mittler collection and this sale.”
A lavishly illustrated journal of four whaling voyages out of Provincetown, Mass., sold for $57,000, It had been kept by Nathan Young and included a harrowing entry about a whaleboat being dragged under by a whale, as well as informative descriptions of weekly meal plans aboard ship, the day-to-day activities of the whalemen and more than 80 drawings, including a detailed one of a whaleboat on davits. It also includes registers of the crewmen on two of the voyages and detailed illustrations of all the equipment used on a whaleboat, identified with a numbered key.
Alan Granby, well-known marine arts specialist, commented, “As with all other categories of antiques, the top tier material is bringing very strong prices. That’s what we’re seeing here today. I think scrimshaw has recovered much better than most American furniture. A lot of scrimshaw collectors were nervous a couple of years ago when very restrictive and unrealistic ‘ivory’ legislation was being considered, and prices temporarily reflected that concern. Since then, prices have recovered very nicely and I think we’re in good shape for the future. It would be nice to see some new faces.”
The sale included several fine marine paintings, with “Ships That Pass,” an oil on canvas by Montague Dawson (English, 1895-1973), leading the category, selling for $84,000. It depicted two large sailing ships on a choppy sea, under a blue sky with some clouds. Two paintings of steamers by Antonio Jacobsen (American Danish, 1850-1921) sold. The steam/sail ship, Orizba, flying an American flag, with a single stack and two masts, brought $7,200, and the other, also a steam/sail ship, SS Philadelphia, earned $7,200. There were six original illustrations by Anton Otto Fischer (American German, 1882-1962) for the 1931 Winston edition of Moby Dick. A colorful oil painting of Captain Ahab on deck with crew members led the group, finishing at $12,000. The others ranged from $600 for an unframed work ready for preservation to $10,800 for another that depicted crewmen in a whale boat at night.
The sale was well marketed. Josh Eldred said, “We promoted the sale extensively, including special previews at our gallery in Mystic, Conn., and one on Nantucket. We wanted to make sure all the top collectors had opportunity to view the material. I think this sale proves that exceptional material, well marketed, will achieve exceptional prices. This really reminded me of the sales from when I was a kid. It was a packed room with lots of floor bidding. The majority of the items were bought, paid for and picked up the same day, which just never happens in our world today of online and phone bidding. We’ve been doing marine sales for 50 years, and this one felt like one of those old-time auctions.”
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For more information, 508-385-3116 or www.eldreds.com.
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