Published: August 31, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Eldred’s
EAST DENNIS, MASS.- With a gross total of $2.2 million, Eldred’s principal Josh Eldred called his firm’s August 19-20 Marine Sale one of his best editions of the past ten years.
More notable, perhaps, was when Eldred related a sense of normalcy in the gallery: “We saw a lot of new buyers, a lot more people in the room as opposed to being online. It felt like a normal auction again.”
Among the named collections found within were those of Nantucket collector Ian MacKenzie and Michael Gill. The auction also dispersed the last remaining chunk of belongings from Richard Kelton. At least eight other private collections added to the trove.
The top three lots in the sale were scrimshaw whale’s teeth.
Ian MacKenzie, who passed away in the fall of 2020, fell in love with Nantucket as a teenager. His passion for the island was lifelong as he purchased a home there and began collecting maritime antiques related to Nantucket and further afield.
In 2006, a pair of scrimshaw teeth carved in the form of a whaling logbook surfaced at a James Julia auction. The catalog noted they were found in a home in Upper New York state on the shore of Lake Ontario. The teeth then passed into the collection of Hyland Granby Antiques and then into MacKenzie’s collection. The pair of teeth, known as the “Log Teeth” were carved by Josiah Sheffield Jr during an 1831-35 voyage and they would go on to produce a sale-leading $93,750.
“They’re the only known pieces of authentic scrimshaw that document a whaling voyage in the form of a logbook entry,” said Cheryl Stewart. The signed teeth were numbered 8 and 9, lending to the theory that at least seven other chapters of this log were carved by Sheffield, though their whereabouts are unknown. Sheffield created these aboard the New Bedford whaleship Timoleon.
Another star from the MacKenzie collection was a scrimshaw whale’s tooth attributed to Moses Denning, known as “The Stark Tooth,” named after dealer Leon Stark. It sold for $87,500. Stark sold the tooth to Barbara Johnson, whose renowned maritime collection was auctioned by Sotheby’s in the 1980s. According to a letter, this tooth was absent from that sale because it was a favorite of Johnson, who used it in lectures, on television appearances and for museum exhibitions.
It was in the late 1960s that Barbara Johnson met with Leon Stark in the middle of a train platform. The two were traveling in different directions and scheduled their meeting in transit. It was here, where the tracks converge, that Johnson acquired the Stark tooth. The transaction beckons visions of Stark opening his long jacket to reveal the tooth as Johnson nods with transfixed eyes as she kicks across a black leather briefcase with unmarked bills, but it was likely less dramatic: a welcoming embrace and an excited collector holding her latest and greatest prize as she cut a personal check.
Moses Denning is known for his curlicues and whimsy, this example bearing similar details to a Denning tooth illustrated in Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved by Stuart M. Frank.
Coming in at $87,500 was a scrimshaw whale’s tooth from the collection of Michael Gill that related to the ship Northern Light. The tooth was signed JT, likely for Jacob Taber, who was the master of the ship on an 1861-62 voyage. The tooth is marked 1861.
Selling for $11,250 was a journal from the whaleship Kathleen that came together with a tooth featuring a mythical creature. The design on the tooth matches an illustration inside the journal, spurring the idea that they were done by the same hand. The journal begins August 5, 1890 and ends March 2, 1892, when the ship set sail from New Bedford under Charles Childs.
Outside of teeth, scrimshaw works were in high demand. A whalebone ditty box depicting the female pirate Alwilda sold for $50,000.
“It’s a very wonderful character, any good Nineteenth Century art does well when she is on it,” said Josh Eldred.
Alwilda is seen with her sword aloft in her right arm, her left arm bent and resting on her hip. According to lore, Alwilda was the daughter of a Fifth Century Scandinavian king, a princess who turned to piracy to escape marriage. When her ex-suitor, the prince of Denmark, was sent to quell the pirates, he found Alwilda who revealed her identity and agreed to finally marry him.
The box will be included in Alan Granby’s forthcoming title, Wandering Whalemen and Their Art: A Collection of Scrimshaw Masterpieces, which will accompany an exhibition at the Cahoon Museum of American Art in the summer of 2022.
The recipient of much buzz was a set of painted scrimshaw walrus tusks in full color with images of a Black and white man accompanied by American and fraternal imagery. The pair had provenance to Meylert Armstrong, E. Norman Flayderman (illustrated in his 1972 book) and Ian MacKenzie. A number of scholars remarked to Cheryl Stewart, the auction house’s scrimshaw specialist, that they wished they had more time to study them as the imagery is rather unique. The auction house noted that they might reference the Fugitive Slave Act or the Dredd Scott decision. The two, circa 1830-60, went out well above estimate at $26,250.
At $16,250 was a darling of a polychrome scrimshaw pie crimper in walrus or whale ivory. Both sides were engraved and wax inlaid with images of a wreath and a flowering plant in a pot. The yoke was carved with two doves, the eye serving as the wheel axle.
A scrimshaw puzzle box in the form of a boat would sail to $12,500. The top was engraved with a full-length portrait of a Scotsman in kilt, the lower tier engraved “Hugh Nairne fecit Newport RI 1847.” Inside appears the engraved name Green Walden, a lead on the possible carver who is recorded as having mastered the revenue cutter Morris in 1847 from Baltimore to Portland, Maine.
The sale’s second day released much of the fine art on tap.
On the sale’s top painting, a starboard view portrait of the ship Hillary Bluff by William Bradford (1823-1892) that brought $59,375, Josh Eldred said, “It’s just a wonderful, large, very brightly colored work by one of the more famous maritime artists.” The oil on canvas measures 28 by 42¼ inches and dates to 1856. The ship sank 13 years later on Nantucket’s South Shoal. The firm wrote, “It is one of [Bradford’s] later ship portraits, and the controlled execution of the color, structure and highlighting of the water and the fine rendering of the sails rank it as one of his best.”
A matched pair or portraits from James Edward Buttersworth (1817-1894) depicting the schooner yacht Palmer came from the same consignor.
“Those came in here 30 years ago, the consignor thought they were prints and my father told them they were paintings,” Josh Eldred said. “We didn’t see them again until now.”
The Palmer was built by and for Richard Fanning Loper, whose shipbuilding company founded in Philadelphia in 1831 would grow to become one of the largest in the United States. He modeled the ship after the America’s Cup winner Magic. Loper sold the ship to Rutherford Stuyvesant, who likely commissioned the artist to paint his boat in two separate locales – in this case on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean. The example featuring the boat off the cliffs of Dover would sell during the sale at $56,250. The other example, depicting the boat off Staten Island, passed during the auction but Eldred said he had strong postsale interest and would likely have it sold within the following week.
Three paintings by Robert Salmon (1775-1851) would do well. They were all consigned from different sellers but they sold to the same buyer. At $32,500 was “Ships And A Brig Of The John Gladstone & Company Fleet In The Mersey,” an oil on canvas of 26 by 43 inches. The other two harbor scenes were smaller and sold for $8,750 and $5,625.
Bidders pushed a Seventeenth Century brass astrolabe from the Nuestra Senora De Atocha to $59,375. The instrument was recovered in the “Pilot’s chest” of the shipwreck in 1985. It had been acquired by Richard Kelton in the 1988 Christie’s sale offering the treasure from the Atocha and Margarita. Eldred noted there was museum interest in this lot.
The auction went 82 percent sold.
All prices include buyer’s premium. For further information, www.eldreds.com or 508-385-3116.
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