Published: August 16, 2022
Review by Z.G. Burnett, Photos Courtesy of Eldred’s
EAST DENNIS, MASS. – Bidders were in for an adventure at Eldred’s, and certainly had their fair share with around 600 lots available. The first session of the Marine Sale on August 4 was dominated with artifacts and art objects from the age of whaling. Almost every one of these lots was either carved or inlaid from ivory or teeth, and the rest of the lots were closely related to the whaling industry. The second session of the Marine Sale on August 5 focused on ship paintings by some of the best names in the genre, as well as nautical tools, ship models, sailor’s valentines and many other goods. The weekend brought a combined total of $1,912,500 in sales, with a buy-through rate between 82 and 85 percent.
“The majority [of sales] went to private collectors,” Bill Bourne, specialist of maritime art, scrimshaw and Americana at Eldred’s, said. “There just aren’t that many dealers of this kind anymore. It’s a very small, select group of people.”
The top lot of the first session, and of both sessions overall, was an exceptional scrimshaw whale’s tooth by the Vignette Artist. The identity of this Nineteenth Century scrimshander is yet to be discovered, but at least two teeth by the same hand were sold at Eldred’s in 2017 and 2021. This example shows the same characteristic framed vignettes in small panels, highlighting details in the action of a whale hunt. The scene depicts a whaleship and five whaleboats chasing down a pair of sperm whales, with crewmates shouting encouragement through speech bubbles to their comrades. The hunt might be disturbing to some contemporary viewers, but to the whalers it was a triumph and a fortune struck. Eldred’s made out well too, as the tooth was bought for $106,250 by a private New England collector.
Even rarer now than it was at the time of its harvesting, a 91-inch narwhal tusk from the Nineteenth Century was the second highest lot of the sale at $36,250. The tusk came with a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) permit from 1985, meant to protect threatened animals from international trade or poaching. There are approximately 200,000 narwhals in the world today, but they are still a protected species. The tusk went to a private collector in Maryland.
Five more scrimshawed whale’s teeth made the top lots, which were just a fraction of more than 150 lots of whale products, including teeth, whalebone and even a jar of sperm whale oil, which lit the world for almost a century until electricity became common. The second highest tooth and third highest selling lot in the first session was attributed to Caleb J. Albro (1816-1894), showing the whaleship John Coggeshall in action, and sold for $32,500. The reverse shows the ship again with a starboard profile, surrounded by boats, with a sun face typical of Albro teeth.
The top teeth following these were polychrome with unusual details that enticed bidders to hammer prices within or above estimates. A pair of mid-Nineteenth Century teeth showed four unusual scenes between them, including an erupting volcano, an American fort with a trio of clock towers and palatial country estate in addition to a more common ship motif. Although each scene shows distinct, swooping clouds and harlequin-pattern borders, the images show variations in engraving styles. The pair achieved $26,250.
Another polychrome tooth sold for $26,250, carved by the Banknote Engraver to show a naval battle most likely between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere, which occurred during the War of 1812 and was a pivotal victory in American naval history. On the reverse is a finely dressed woman at an Empire-style desk, looking pensive as she leans on an open book.
One top lot was a time capsule of mid-Nineteenth Century whaling, the collection of whaling master Spencer Pratt (American, b 1808), active around the 1830s to the 1840s. The group lot included a mahogany inlaid trinket box believed to be made by Pratt for his wife Sarah Ann West, who he married in 1834. Pratt is credited with at least four other known boxes like this. Within the box were two cased ambrotypes of Pratt and his wife, the logbook of the 1842-46 whaling voyage mastered by Pratt aboard the Mechanic, a trumpet engraved with his name for addressing the crew and two mid-Nineteenth Century birds on reverse-painted glass in their original gold-colored wood frames. One of these was inscribed on the verso by Pratt’s grand-nephew, identifying them as souvenirs brought “from China or Japan” for his family. The lot collected $27,500.
Bourne pointed out a couple of portrait teeth that he was satisfied to sell, both with provenances from his father’s auction house, Richard A. Bourne Company (Hyannis, Mass.). Both showed couple portraits with a man and woman on either side of the tooth, each of them well-dressed and named, carved with rare depictions of circa 1830-40 furniture. The teeth were sold together in 1986, as they appear to be carved by the same anonymous hand, but they were separated at some point. During this sale, they each sold for $5,000 by the same buyer and were happily reunited in a scrimshaw double date.
The second session of the sale set sail [say that five times fast] with a Robert Salmon painting of an “English Cutter and Lugger, off North Shields, 1840,” for $40,625. The verso is inscribed by Salmon as “No. 28 Painted by R. Salmon 1840.” Salmon was an English-American artist who completed almost 1,000 paintings mostly of maritime scenes and seascapes whose work was sought-after during his lifetime. After emigrating to the United States as a young man, he departed almost 20 years later to Italy. His last known work is dated 1845, and the year of his death is unknown.
Another Anglo-American maritime artist filled two of the top three lot spaces, and at the same price of $35,000 each. James E. Buttersworth’s “Yacht Henrietta Off the Isle of Wight, 1866″ and “Yachting Off Castle Garden” were both signed at the lower right of the canvas. Each show the artist’s signature skies with subtle tonal shifts, graceful movement and detailed sailors at work.
One of the few non-painting top lots was a rare and important mariner’s compass, signed and dated by Pedro Friere (Portuguese, dates unknown) in 1789 on the verso of the compass card, which is engraved with intricate compass rose designs. The entire box is covered with a removable glazed glass top, which helped to preserve the remarkable decorations on its interior panels, each with hand painted designs, landscapes and portraits from the European “Age of Discovery.” In a 2013 video listed in the description David Brafman, now rare books curator at the J. Paul Getty Trust, explains that its elaborate design and state of preservation points to the compass being made for philosophers or scientists not the high seas. Whatever its intended market, the compass sold for $31,250.
There were many seascapes and portraits from the Chinese school in the sale, including a harbor scene of Canton attributed to the painter Tinqua that achieved $22,500. The large format of this work is rare for the artist and allows for precise detailing that helped specialists date the work to 1850. The painting shows the European factories, a Protestant church and an American paddle steamer, indicating Canton’s status as the first hub of international trade in the Chinese Empire.
Whaling history was also up for sale in this session, with a rare toggle-head harpoon from the Charles W. Morgan of New Bedford, Mass., the last wooden whaleship that still exists in Mystic, Conn., today. The head was stamped “CWM” and bore an octagonal bronze plaque of the ship on the pole. Also stamped on the head was “A.J. Peters” for the harpoon’s blacksmith, Ambrose J. Peters, and marked on the other side “WB” for waist boat. The harpoon retained its original pole and manila rope, selling for $11,250.
Prices with buyer’s premium as quoted by the auction house. Eldred’s next Marine Auction will be conducted in late February. For more information, 508-385-3116 or www.eldreds.com.
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