Published: August 27, 2019
Review and Photos by Greg Smith, Catalog Photos Courtesy Rafael Osona Auctions
NANTUCKET, MASS. – Rafael Osona’s August 3 Americana, Fine Art, Marine Auction was a whaler’s dream. Adorned, decorated and hand-shaped whale ivory was found in engraved scrimshaw teeth, clocks, canes, baskets, swifts and toys, surrounded by picturesque and serene seascape paintings and ship portraits with full, wind-blown sails. The auction featured 502 lots and grossed $1.4 million, going above 70 percent sold, with follow-up sales pushing the number higher. Osona reported a full house from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm in the gallery, adding that he auctioned the full eight hours himself on the podium.
The August 3 auction was Osona’s third sale where buyers the world-over could bid live with the auction on Bidsquare. “We’ve been hesitant,” Osona said before the sale got underway. “We are on Nantucket, and it’s a completely different audience.” But consignors no doubt wanted the platform to help their lots gain broader interest, and the auctioneer was happy to indulge. After the sale, Osona remarked that he had 41 new buyers online, though some of them were folks sitting on their computers right up the road from him. “Either way, it’s certainly positive,” he said.
“Scrimshaw, to me, is the whaler’s sketchpad, so there’s a lot of that,” Osona said, opening his arms towards the preview room at The American Legion Hall in the heart of the island’s downtown harbor. True to form, the sale’s top lot came from this selection. A whale tooth carved and signed by William Lewis Roderick sold above estimate for $75,640. Roderick was a Welsh physician who served as a ship’s surgeon on three London South Sea whaling voyages aboard the Adventure, all between 1847-56, when this tooth is believed to have been carved. The tooth lived on Nantucket for 100 years after its carving, until it moved out west with its owner for 30 years. Its appearance at the auction hall marked a homecoming of sorts. The tooth had engraving on one side featuring an active whaling scene in choppy waters with two three-masted whaling barks in the background, one cutting in, and three whaleboats out subduing a partially submerged whale.
“I thought the teeth did very well,” Osona told Antiques and The Arts Weekly following the sale. “As strong as the scrimshaw market is – as strong as it’s ever been in 40 years – I still find that not just any tooth is going to bring money. The market is willing to pay record prices, but they’re very selective.”
At $45,750 was a pair of teeth from the Wax Engraver, circa 1840, boldly colored in red and blue. The engraver was known to create works in pairs, and these two had been separated for 30 years before the companion was discovered and brought together by the consignor. The teeth both featured the ship Columbia beneath a Federal shield flanked by six American flags with tassels, cannons, ramrods, bayonets and more. At $15,000 was a sperm whale tooth attributed to the Ceres A. Artisan, William A. Gilpin. It featured a full portrait of Lady Hope with an anchor in front a Federal shield and was notable for its size, 7½ inches long. According to Osona, nearly all of the artist’s work measures an inch or more shorter.
Whaler-made whale ivory accessories were also in high demand. At $32,940 was a whale ivory, whalebone, mother of pearl, abalone and baleen walking stick, circa 1860-70. The head was shaped as a polyhedron and led down into an openwork section with a twisted-rod interior. The piece had sold at Sotheby’s in 1983 from the Barbara Johnson whaling collection and found its way into the Nantucket collection of Frank Sylvia. At $29,280 was a watch hutch, circa 1830, with whale ivory structure with extensive tortoiseshell inlay on an inlaid mahogany base with ivory feet. An example from the same maker is in the Nantucket Historical Association Collection.
The next four lots, and 75 others in the sale catalog, all had provenance to the Thomas A. Gray collection. Gray co-founded the Old Salem Toy Museum with his mother, Anne Pepper Gray; curated the corporate collection of R.J. Reynolds tobacco company; and served as the director of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA). Back to the subject of inlay, a terrific walking stick inlaid with abalone, whale ivory and mother of pearl on a tapering rosewood shaft would sell for $23,180. The piece featured inlays of stars, triangles and circles in alternating sections. A Nantucket-made pierced lower panbone swing handle basket wound up above estimate at $15,860. Also with origins to the island was a whalebone doll’s rope bed, 12½ inches long and circa 1840, that featured matching head and footboard with block and turned posts. It went out at $14,640. Rising above a $2,200 estimate and selling for $14,640 was a carved and polychrome scrimshaw whale ivory thimbleholder in egg form. The top was engraved with images of a peace dove, cornucopia and basket of flowers, while the bottom featured an alphabet sampler above blooming hearts.
Among other surprises was a miniature Regency mahogany tea caddy in the form of a sideboard. Circa 1830-40 and 16 inches long, the piece was estimated at $1,600 and went on to sell for $7,500. “You opened the top and there were two tea boxes plus a mixing bowl,” Osona said. “I started at $800, and it was one of the lots that took the longest to sell all day, between the phones and the bidder in the gallery. It baby-stepped it’s way all the way up, and the gallery got hooting and hollering. It was one of those surprises which was most-loved by the consignor. I got an email from the consignor that evening – they must have been watching online – and they had a party before I had the party.”
Fine art was led by a watercolor study by George de Forest Brush (1855-1941) titled “The Sculptor and the King.” The nearly identical oil on panel is held in the American Art collection of the Portland Art Museum. Measuring 11¾ by 21¾ inches, the lot gained considerable attention to sell above estimate at $67,100 to the trade.
“That I found here on Nantucket in a home,” Osona said. “A 40-year friend of mine asked me to come by and give her a good-better-best-scenario on what she had. So we did that and walked through the large house. There was nothing of major significance until one of the last rooms – her husband’s office – had this interesting work on the wall. As I looked at it, I knew it was a tremendous work. It had been sold by the artist to the consignor’s grandfather in the mid-1920s, so it had never been out of the family. It was exquisite quality, and it brought a fair price.”
Two Anne Ramsdell Congdon paintings would do well. “Old North Wharf,” a 1927 oil on canvas, 22 by 18 inches and one of Congdon’s favorite subjects, would bring $36,600. The consignor had slated it for donation until a younger member of the family decided to look it up online. “We’re the main people that sell Congdon, so they contacted us, and we gave them an estimate. They shipped it immediately,” Osona, said.
Congdon’s other work, “Commercial Wharf, Nantucket,” a 7-by-9½-inch oil on board, brought $18,300.
A James Buttersworth oil on canvas titled “Portrait of the Yacht America, Racing Off Sandy Hook, With Deck Hands Changing The Sails, August 1870,” featuring dramatic dark storm clouds behind the subject, wound up at $34,160. Purchased from the artist’s studio in 1999 was a Robert Stark Jr oil on canvas titled “The Fleet,” which went on to bring $28,060. The top lot from artist Ralph Eugene Cahoon Jr was “A Hero’s Wedding,” oil on Masonite, featuring a dockside celebration of a young mermaid and the captain of the ship Hero. It took $21,960.
Watches led the jewelry category, with twin Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytonas in stainless steel and 18K yellow gold, one with a white face and one with a black face, bringing $10,980 and $10,370, respectively. A carved jadeite broach set with 18K yellow and white gold with diamond accents, attributed to Paul Flato, took $6,100.
Two Nantucket chairs brought respectable results. At $9,760 was a fan-back Windsor armchair, circa 1780-90, in an old finish with circular carved ears on a shaped crest rail and flaring armrests. Sitting a bit shorter was another fan-back Windsor, this a side chair. Osona said it was meant to be shorter because it was a fireside chair. He said it had sat in the closet of a Siasconset home for 100 years, and it still had a nice red paint decoration. That chair brought $4,270.
The highest result for a Nantucket woven basket came at $5,490 for a Lightship basket labeled Davis Hall (1828-1905).
“It’s a great time to buy baskets,” Osona said. “There were a couple that did enormously well. Smaller baskets are doing better than big harvest or oval baskets. I would always recommend buying them mint.”
Behind at $5,490 was a nest of two Joseph Fisher baskets with round swing handles and cut brass ears. They were dated 1898. From José Formoso Reyes came a Friendship basket, circa 1950, the lidded example featuring a pine base and a mahogany oval plaque to the top with a carved walrus ivory seal. It sold for $5,124. Measuring only 4 inches high was a miniature round open swing handle basket that brought $4,880 above a $1,600 high estimate.
Osona had a busy August, logging five sales within the month. His next will be October 12. For more information, 508-228-3942 or www.rafaelosonaauction.com.
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