Published: March 8, 2022
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Additional Photos Courtesy Eldred’s
EAST DENNIS, MASS. – Eldred’s identifies itself as New England’s oldest continuously operating auction house, having been founded in 1947 by Bob Eldred Sr and now under the management of third-generation Josh Eldred, his family and dedicated staff. For years, they have been recognized for their expertise in handling the sale of scrimshaw, important marine paintings and other marine-related artifacts. They conduct two cataloged marine sales annually, along with about 20 other auctions, including three cataloged sales of Americana and folk art, along with Asian items, sporting art, toys and dolls and more. Eldred’s catalog descriptions are detailed and include condition reports. Josh Eldred said that the pandemic brought hundreds of new buyers and that in 2021 the firm sold to buyers in 48 different countries and all 50 states. Obviously, there’s no longer any such thing as a “regional” auction house. Nearly all sales are “live,” which allows for in-house bidding (although crowds are small) and internet bidding along with absentee and phone bids. The buyer’s premium is standardized, regardless of how a purchaser bids or pays.
The marine sales are a specialty of the house and the February 24 sale included high-quality scrimshawed whales’ teeth, marine paintings by some of the biggest names in the field, navigation instruments, sailor-made whalebone objects, prisoner-of-war work, whaling accessories, Carl Voorhees carved whales and more.
Not surprisingly, the three top lots of the day, accounting for 20 percent of the sale’s gross, were scrimshawed whales’ teeth. Tying for the highest price of the sale, $75,000, was a tooth with a detailed whaling scene on one side and a fully rigged whaleship flying an American flag on the other. The polychromed tooth was the work of the elusive “Banknote Engraver” whose identity has not yet been confirmed. However, it’s possible that a note found in the hollow of this tooth will provide the actual identity of this skilled carver. The old, typewritten note, folded up and stored in the hollow of the tooth, had remained in the tooth during the consignor’s childhood. It read “Scrimshaw – A Sperm whale tooth over 80 years old decorated with scrimshaw. Debby’s great, great grandfather sailed on a three-year whaling expedition as ships carpenter and did this work to pass the time.”
Based on genealogical research, Willard M. Brown (1821-1900), who served as ship’s carpenter aboard the New Bedford whaling bark Canton Packet from December 1841 to February 1845, is the ancestor referenced on the note and could provide the actual identity of the hitherto anonymous “Banknote Engraver.” This tooth was discussed in depth and illustrated in “Was He The Banknote Engraver? Scrimshaw Shipmates aboard the Canton Packet, 1841-45” by Stuart M. Frank, published in the spring/summer 2021 Scrimshaw Observer.
Bringing the same price, $75,000, was a pair of polychrome teeth depicting George and Martha Washington by an unknown carver. Both teeth were believed to have been based upon early published sources; that of George wearing his uniform as colonel of the Virginia regiment, which he commanded from 1755 to 1758 during the French and Indian Wars, was originally painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1772, and Martha’s likeness probably was based upon a 1757 painting by John Wollaston. Martha Washington had commissioned the Peale portrait of her husband as a companion to the 1757 Wollaston portrait of her, and the pair of paintings hung in the front parlor of Mount Vernon.
Other whales’ teeth did well, with a tooth attributed to the Ceres carver, depicting a patriotic scene of “Hope” with an eagle, an American flag and more, being the third highest priced item in the sale, finishing at $62,500. Bringing $20,000, four times the estimate, was a tooth attributed to the “Star” engraver, with a large pair of birds standing above a polychromed shield with stars and red stripes. The unusual treatment of the stars is typical of the work of this unknown engraver and has been discussed in print, and works by this unknown engraver are in several major collections.
There were more than five dozen marine paintings, including two by James Edward Buttersworth (1817-1894). Leading the category was his small, oil on board painting of the schooner yacht Palmer under full sail, with Staten Island in the background. It sold for $53,125. Buttersworth painted the yacht more than once, and Eldred’s catalog has an extensive description of her ownership and racing history. An American ship in the harbor of Naples, with Vesuvius in the background, by Italian artist Giovani Serritelli (1810-circa 1880) was well-liked, selling for $21,250, in spite of inpainting visible under black light and noted in the catalog. It was signed lower left “Serritelli Napoli.” The large selection of paintings included nine by Antonio Nicolo Gasparo Jacobsen (1850-1921). The favorite among the bidders was his portrait of the auxiliary steamship Somerset, which was signed and dated “Antonio Jacobsen New York 1877.” It depicted the ship under full sail, flying pennants along with the American flag and earned $13,750. Five of the Jacobsens brought $6,250 each, while one with condition issues went out for $1,375.
There were also lithographs and engravings relating to the whaling industry and its history. An interesting set of four lithographs published by Benjamin Russell, New Bedford, documented the 1871 loss of more than 30 whaling ships caught by an early freeze in the Arctic. Forty whale ships were trapped and 33 were lost. All 1,219 crew members were transferred to the other seven ships and none were lost. Each of the four prints, identically framed, was fully titled and provided lasting images of the disaster and the efforts to save the survivors. The set of four brought $1,625.
Navigation instruments made in the United States are scarce, especially early ones, as most were made in London. One of the surprises of the day was an 1856 Burt’s “reflecting” equatorial sextant, made by William Jones Young and inscribed “Patent applied for by Wm. A. Burt #5.” This was a complicated and scarce instrument, with only seven having been made and of those, only three were “reflecting.” Burt provided them to the US Navy in 1856 and they were purchased for $200 each. The catalog states that this one may be the last of the William Young examples and it sold for $32,500, far above the estimate. The catalog has an extensive description of this instrument. There were numerous other navigating instruments in the sale, including octants, quadrants, compasses and a British, circa 1885, hydrographic survey quintant, which realized $5,625. As with the Burt’s sextant mentioned above, catalog descriptions were detailed for each instrument.
After the sale, Josh Eldred said he was pleased with the day. “Not many items were passed, and we’ve since sold some of those and I expect we’ll sell a few more,” he said. “That gives us a gross of about $1 million. There were a lot of people watching the sale online, we invoiced 155 buyers and there were more than 2,000 bidders. That shows us that participation was broad across all categories. Some of the items went to institutions in this country and some went to foreign buyers. We’re believers in producing informative catalogs for our sales, even though it’s increasingly expensive. We’re at a time when many auctioneers have eliminated printed catalogs and have reduced the number of photographs they post but we find that our customers like them, and they tell us so. We’re already working on the next marine sale, which will be August 4 and 5, and we’re also working on the next cataloged Americana sale, which will be July 26 and 27. So stay tuned – good stuff coming.”
Prices given included the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.eldreds.com or 508-385-3116.
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