Auctions & Artifacts

It looks like my photo from the Over the Top museum auction/fund raiser made it into the paper:

I’m excited to say that this will be the second time I’ve made it into the Standard Times, or as locals so affectionately call it, the Substandard Times. Neat!

Speaking of auctions, I made it up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire last Sunday for the Northeast Maritime Auction. It was great to see such a beautiful little town, and to spend the afternoon writing down the selling prices of numerous fantastic artifacts. My Director was kind enough to introduce me to a number of the big name maritime collectors who were at the auction. And then I got to see them in action:

“I see 85, 85, 85 can I get 90? 90 thousand. 90 thousand. Going to 95—gentleman in the blue, 95 grand anyone for 100k?—105, who’s got 105? No one? No one? This is a great deal here guys, a genuine X, really no more?—SOLD to 7732 for 105,000 thousand dollars!”

That’s basically the auction in a nutshell, with items selling for as little as 100$ to as much as 150k (or, if I had come the previous day, up to 300k). The highest selling items (75-125k scrimshaw sperm whale teeth) went to the collectors Stuart (my director) introduced me to, which was exciting in and of itself. What really took the cake was going to work the next day, only to find all those collectors had shown up with their newly purchased scrimshaw artifacts so Stuart could analyze them.

I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me: Stuart wrote the dictionary on scrimshaw, literally.

…and the sequel.

So I spent my Monday looking at hundred thousand dollar whale teeth under a microscope with maritime collector juggernauts, each armed with his own magnifying glass.

Tooth identification is pretty interesting. With a microscope, you can see exactly how the cuts were made into the tooth, exactly how the knife or tool responded to the surface of the tooth, and generally get an idea of the artist’s style. Close inspection of letter formation, or how the artist depicts eyes, or other characteristic features also helps to identify who the author might have been. Newly carved teeth are soft, and harden with age, allowing one to make long smooth cuts in its surface—so if you see scraping or fracturing, you can be pretty certain that the scrimshaw is a forgery. We took the teeth into the museum collections to compare them to a number of other teeth to see if we could find a common artist, but the comparison led us to believe that we’d come across a completely new artist altogether. I guess that means another entry for Stuart’s dictionary. He promises me I’ll be well versed in tooth identification by the time I leave here—a party trick that, no doubt, will leave the ladies swooning!

I got a chance to talk with a few of the collectors, and got an earful on auction dynamics. Basically, if you go into an auction without full knowledge of the artifacts that you want to purchase, how much they are worth, how much you are willing to spend, and especially who else is bidding, then you’re asking to be screwed.

I love this job because stuff is always just falling onto my desk, and it’s always cool. I walked into Stuart’s office the other day and he had a full on harpoon head just laying across his desk—“sure, touch it, poke it, see how it’s aligned, just put it back on my desk when you’re done.”

Thursday a lady came in who was a descendent of George Lyman Howland, (Howland is a big-name whaling family here in New Bedford). She had brought in her great-grandfather’s liquor box, a wooden box divided into six compartments with nice glass bottles with frosted glass stoppers. A couple of them even had residual alcohol in them, one of them was still half full of gin! Basically, I was looking at the original, 19th century, Quaker six-pack.

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