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Scrimshaw Record Set at Eldred's

July 20th, 2017

Robert C. Eldred Co., Inc., East Dennis, Massachusetts

Photos courtesy Eldred’s

For its annual Cape Cod marine auction under the big tent on July 20, Eldred’s in East Dennis, Massachusetts, began as it meant to go on. It was a buying kind of day, and bidders were ready. Eldred’s was more than ready with enviable scrimshaw—the third and final portion of the Thomas Mittler collection, considered by many to be the best collection to come to market since that of Barbara Johnson 40 years ago. Eldred’s sold the first part of the collection last October and the second in April. This time 74 lots crossed the block.

In a letter printed in the catalog, Joshua F. Eldred, president of Eldred’s, and William E. Bourne, vice president and head of maritime arts at Eldred’s, wrote about Josh’s father and grandfather, Robert C. Eldred Jr. and Robert C. Eldred Sr., and Bourne’s father, Richard Bourne, as among the first auctioneers to bring scrimshaw to market. In addition, Bill Bourne’s great-grandfather William Wells Eldredge was a whaling captain.

The first lot of the nearly 500-lot sale, a scrimshaw whale tooth by Nantucket whaleman and second mate Edward Burdett (1805-1833) aboard the ship William Tell, attracted interest from near and far. It was estimated at $160,000/210,000. Bidding opened at $130,000, and the tooth sold for $456,000 (includes buyer’s premium), a record price for a piece of scrimshaw. From the podium, Bourne pronounced the tooth simply “a masterpiece.” It came most recently from a 24-year collection of a very lucky man who saw the tooth at a gun show where Norm Flayderman was also present. The consignor saw it first and bought it.


This scrimshaw whale tooth by Nantucket whaleman and second mate Edward Burdett (1805-1833) while aboard the ship William Tell attracted interest from near and far. It was estimated at $160,000/210,000, and bidding opened at $130,000. The tooth sold to a collector for $456,000, a record price for a piece of scrimshaw. From the podium, Eldred’s vice president and head of Americana and maritime arts William E. Bourne pronounced the tooth simply “a masterpiece.” It came most recently from the 24-year collection of a very lucky man who saw the tooth at a gun show where collector, dealer, and author Norm Flayderman was also present. The consignor saw it first and bought it.

Burdett, an early practitioner of pictorial scrimshaw, engraved exceptionally beautiful images over his short life. The tooth is inscribed on one edge “Engraved. By. Edward Burdett. Of Nantucket. Onboard Of The Ship Wm Tell.” and on the other edge “Wm Tell. Of. New York. Cutting. Boiling. & Fast To A Whale.” On one side it depicts a vessel flying a large American flag while crewmen in a whaleboat off the bow are capturing a sperm whale, and the New Bedford whale ship George and Susan,owned by George Howland, sails in the distance. The reverse side of the tooth is engraved with an image of the William Thomson of New Bedford and bears the legend “Wm Thomson. Homeward Bound. Full.” It is portrayed flying a large American flag, an agent’s flag off the foremast, a pennant off the midmast, and a house flag off the stern. The 8" long tooth is further decorated with a distinctive foliate vine that wraps almost completely around the circumference of the base and with red sealing wax in the flags, the whale, and whale blubber.

The William Tell sailed on its maiden voyage from New York in November 1829 and returned in February 1833. In November of that year, Burdett, as first mate aboard the Nantucket whale ship Montano, was caught in a line during the capture of a whale and lost overboard at age 27. The tooth, which had never been offered at auction, went into a private southwestern collection. Speaking after the sale, Bourne said it was the best piece of scrimshaw to ever come to market.

Burdett, an early practitioner of pictorial scrimshaw, engraved exceptionally beautiful images over his short life. The tooth was inscribed on one edge “Engraved. By. Edward Burdett. Of Nantucket. Onboard Of The Ship Wm Tell.,” and on the other edge “Wm Tell. Of. New York. Cutting. Boiling. & Fast To A Whale.” The tooth, which had never been offered at auction, went into a private collection. Speaking after the sale, Bourne said it was the best piece of scrimshaw to ever come to market.

Each object in the Mittler collection is illustrated and discussed in the 2015 book Through the Eyes of a Collector: The Scrimshaw Collection of Thomas Mittler by Nina Hellman. Hellman had helped Mittler gather his collection, and he had asked Hellman to write the book, but he died in 2010 before it could be realized. His widow, Charlotte Mittler, asked Hellman to write the book to honor his wishes. Mittler had a fine eye for the scrimshaw he collected, and he was highly appreciative of the untrained seamen who engraved the objects. At the same time he appreciated the utilitarian objects that exemplified the artistry of the unknown scrimshanders.

While the scrimshaw teeth gleaned the most interest, the sale wasn’t all about whale teeth. Utilitarian objects, which Mittler prized, were well received by buyers. A 13 3/8" long scrimshaw baleen busk decorated profusely with entwined hearts with palm trees, an island with palm trees, the initials “E.I.,” a house behind a large hill, a landscape with trees and foliate hearts, a memorial, and a hex sign, all separated by geometric bands, realized $4800 (est. $500/1000).


This 11¾" long whalebone scrimshaw busk, attributed to the Bank Note Engraver, has a double-arch top and is decorated with a potted plant, a geometric band, two doves, a young woman, flowers, and a foliate design. It has been broken and repaired and has a visible crack. It was estimated at $3500/5000 and realized $5400.


This whale ivory pie crimper in the form of a slithering serpent is rare. With a carved open mouth, inlaid baleen eyes and banding, a fine thin carved scroll at the base of the fork, a wheel with a star, and an inset metal plate engraved “C.R. Dexter,” the crimper was estimated at $12,000/16,000 and went to the buyer of the Burdett tooth for $25,200. In addition to its illustration in Nina Hellman’s book on the Mittler collection, it was illustrated in Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders: Whales and Whalemen by E. Norman Flayderman, and it had been in the Barbara Johnson collection.


This 7¾" long whale ivory pie crimper, with conjoined birds, a scroll handle, a conforming incised border, brass piqué inlay, and a baleen hanging ring, brought $16,800 (est. $3000/5000). Eldred’s photo.

Panbones from the Mittler collection drew their own buyers. A large scrimshaw panbone plaque, 10¾" x 17½", engraved with a scene of a whale ship, four whaleboats, seven whales, and another ship under sail in the distance, sold for $15,600 (est. $10,000/15,000). The same buyer paid $3900 for a panbone plaque, 6½" x 14½", engraved with a scene of a naval engagement between an American warship and three British ships, two of which are firing cannons.

For more information, visit Eldred’s website (www.eldreds.com) or call (508) 385-3116.


The decoration of these three whale teeth is attributed to the Arch Engraver, so called for the thin arch surrounding the images. Estimated at $75,000/120,000, the lot realized $240,000 in the tent. The teeth are from the same whale but had not been together until they were reunited in the Mittler collection. The top tooth, 9½" long, depicts a three-masted ship flying a long pennant and a polychrome American flag (shown); on the other side the tooth depicts a harpooned sperm whale alongside a whaleboat after the capture. On the middle tooth, 9½" long, are a whale ship flying a polychrome American flag, three whaleboats in the water, and eight whales, three of which are being captured. A whaleman in a whaleboat aims his harpoon. On the bottom tooth, 9" long, a spread-wing eagle clutches a banner inscribed “Prosper—The Whaler” above an olive branch, while a whaling scene (shown) on the reverse includes an American whale ship amid four whaleboats and nine whales.


This scrimshaw whale tooth, known as a vignette tooth, 6¾" long, is engraved with an image of a whale ship cutting in, three whaleboats, one of which is staved by a whale, and a vignette above the scene of a two-masted ship on a dead run. The reverse (shown) is engraved with a whale ship flying the American flag from its midmast and surrounded by four whaleboats and five whales, with a vignette depicting a three-masted ship off an island with a lighthouse and palm trees. Vignettes are set off by diamond banding. Estimated at $35,000/45,000, the vignette tooth sold for $96,000 to a phone bidder. A similar vignette tooth, by the same hand, brought $46,000 at Eldred’s maritime arts sale in July 2011.


This Susan tooth, 6¾" long, engraved by Frederick Myrick aboard the Nantucket whale ship Susan, depicts the ship with whaling off her bow. A banner above the scene reads “The Susan boiling & killing sperm whales” as smoke rises from the center of the ship. The reverse (shown) depicts the Susan cutting in—also with whaling off her bow. A banner above the scene reads “The Susan on the Coast of Japan.” A vine surrounds an arch of stars above a spread-wing eagle clutching arrows with a banner inscribed “E Pluribus Unum.” One side of the tooth is inscribed “Ship Susan of Nantucket / Frederick Swain / Master,” and the other reads “Death to the Living long live the killers / Success to sailors wives & greasy luck to whalers.” A band at the tip is inscribed “Engraved by Fredk Myrick on board the ship Susan March th 4th 1829.” Estimated at $100,000/150,000, the tooth sold for $120,000. The tooth has been published extensively, including in the catalogue raisonné by Donald E. Ridley and Stuart M. Frank, the latter of whom was present for the sale. Not shown, a related object in the sale was a copy of the 1955 Susan’s Teeth and much about Scrimshaw by Nantucket historian and author Everett U. Crosby. The book sold online for $1440 (est. $300/600).


When Nathan Young (b. 1824) of Provincetown went to sea in February 1847 aboard the whale ship Rienzi as a boat-steerer and later as second mate, he began a logbook that covered the voyage through August 1847 and another voyage aboard the same ship from April 1848 to September 1848. The logbook covers a third voyage aboard the Lewis Bruce fromApril 1849 through September 1849, and a fourth voyage, from April 1850 through October 1850, while Young was master of the Lewis Bruce. Young’s journal, in a fine script, is illustrated with some 85 beautifully drawn images of whales, ships, and sea life and includes a crew list, meal plan, and vivid descriptions of taking a whale. The logbook carried an estimate of $20,000/30,000 and sold for $57,000 to the buyer of the Burdett tooth.


This 9½" long scrimshaw whale tooth engraved on one side (shown) with a whale ship surrounded by four whaleboats and 11 visible whales is inscribed “Ship George Clinton of Hudson. Sept 9th 1835 Lat 2S=50 Long 169W=40.” The other side depicts a side and stern view of the ship with a landmass. Estimated at $15,000/25,000, it sold on the phone for $51,000. Catalog notes indicate that Hudson River whalers were rare. The George Clinton made one voyage, departing Hudson, New York, on August 16, 1835, and was lost homeward bound on January 18, 1838. The logbook covering the voyage from August 18, 1834, to November 23, 1837, by Samuel Barrett, the George Clinton’s shipmaster, is part of the Paul C. Nicholson Whaling Collection at the Providence (Rhode Island) Public Library.


The highlight of marine art was this dramatic image used on the catalog cover, Ships that Pass, a 28¼" x 42" oil on canvas by the largely self-taught British artist Montague Dawson (1890-1973). It sold on the phone for $84,000 (est. $30,000/50,000). The picture, which is titled in pencil on the upper stretcher, came most recently from a New England institution.


An Anton Otto Fischer oil on canvas illustration, 28" x 22", reproduced for the 1931 children’s edition of Moby-Dick: “The Parsee, crouching in the bow, sat watching the sharks that spectrally played round the whale.” It realized $10,800 (est. $7000/9000).


These whale teeth are particularly detailed. One is inscribed “Takeing [sic] Whale” and depicts a whale ship with a whale alongside, four whaleboats at work, and eight other whales—one of which is waifed. The other tooth, inscribed “The Chase,” depicts a whale ship with two whaleboats in the water and eight whales. Estimated at $20,000/25,000, the lot brought $60,000 from a phone bidder.


Originally published in the September 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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