Published: July 21, 2015
Nina Hellman has been fascinated with scrimshaw since first visiting the New Bedford Whaling Museum in the 1960s. A specialist in marine art and antiques, she for 27 years kept an open shop in Nantucket, where she and her husband, Bob, have lived full-time since the mid-1990s. One scrimshaw collector she advised was Thomas Mittler, with whom she worked for nearly two decades. After the Michigan resident’s death in 2010, his widow, Charlotte, commissioned Hellman to write Through The Eyes of A Collector: The Scrimshaw Collection of Thomas Mittler. The profusely illustrated book is for sale at www.nauticalnantucket.com.
How did you meet Tom Mittler?
I met him at the Winnetka Antiques Show in Illinois in 1993. Tom and Charlotte had a variety of collecting interests. Tom’s interests included classic sports cars and vintage wooden boats. He was very passionate and, had he lived, would still be collecting scrimshaw. He was increasingly interested in acquiring pieces that related to what he had.
How would you characterize the collection?
It’s very high quality and broadly representative. 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.
What drew him to scrimshaw?
Tom’s business was distributing industrial equipment. He 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.
When did you move to Nantucket?
I opened a shop here in 1983 and for a while commuted from Katonah, N.Y., where we lived. We had a cottage when I was commuting, but bought a serious house on the island when Bob retired. All told, I’ve been in three locations here. I closed my shop five years ago and now deal privately, online and at the occasional show.
How did the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s annual Scrimshaw Weekends contribute to your development?
Organized by scrimshaw scholar Stuart Frank each year since its inception, the first meeting was held in the late 1980s at the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon, Mass. My relationship with Stuart goes way back to those early events and I regard him as a mentor. Stuart recommended me to South Street Seaport Museum to curate a scrimshaw exhibit. In 1992, I wrote A Mariner’s Fancy: The Whaleman’s Art of Scrimshaw, which described the exhibit. It was published by South Street and the University of Washington Press. I’ve also benefited from knowing others involved with the weekend, among them the Honorable Paul E. Vardeman and Dr Jack H.T. Chang, both cited in the book.
Will the entire collection go to auction and, if so, when?
Northeast Auctions will be selling the collection but, last I heard, had not selected a date. Everything will be sold except for the ditty boxes, which Charlotte is keeping. It’s the best scrimshaw collection to come to market since Barbara Johnson’s.
What are your favorite pieces in the book?
There are three teeth by the Arch Engraver that are really amazing. We acquired them over a period of several years. They are special because they came out of the same whale’s jaw and together provide a detailed record of a specific hunt. There is a matched pair of teeth decorated with women that Tom bought separately and put back together. I love a tooth by the Lady Wellington Engraver. Its tip is carved with the face of a fish. I also admire a wonderful pair of double blocks carved out of whalebone.
How did the book come about?
Tom and I had talked about doing a book on scrimshaw. After he died in 2010, Charlotte decided that she would underwrite the project as a memorial to him. The book contains essentially the entire scrimshaw collection, about 200 objects, and has been out since mid-May. Proceeds from its sale are going to various not-for-profit organizations.
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