On July 20, the first lot of nearly 500 in the Marine sale in East Dennis featured a scrimshaw whale’s tooth by Edward Burdett, which the saleroom said was “considered a masterpiece by many in the collecting community”.
Opening at $100,000, bidding moved swiftly to the hammer price of $380,000/£290,080 (or a premium-inclusive $456,000/£348,090), paid by a private collector in the room.
Eldred’s believe this to be a record auction price for a piece of scrimshaw, beating a tooth by the ‘Pagoda/Albatross’ artist that sold for a premium-inclusive $324,000 at Northeast Auctions in August 2012. A Burdett tooth that sold for $303,000 is thought to be the previous record holder before that.
The Burdett tooth at Eldred’s was an individually submitted consignment from a private American collector and had been estimated at $160,000-210,000.
“I knew it had a shot at making the record price as soon as I saw a photo of it,” said Bill Bourne, Eldred’s vice president and head of its marine art department. “It’s a beautiful piece – a masterpiece. From getting the consignment through selling it on the block, it was a pleasure to handle, and certainly a highlight of my career.”
The tooth was inscribed Engraved by Edward Burdett of Nantucket Onboard the Ship William Tell and depicts a whaling scene of the William Tell and the George & Susan on the obverse and a coastal view of the whaleship William Thomson on the reverse. Based on shipping records, it is likely the William Tell encountered the William Thomson and the George & Susan while in the Pacific whaling grounds, somewhere between October 1830 and February 1833.
Burdett, a pioneer of American scrimshaw, was born on Nantucket in October 1805 and went on his first whaling voyage in 1822. He began ‘scrimshandering’ around 1824. He died in November 1833 after being entangled in line and dragged overboard by a whale. His scrimshaw pieces are “widely regarded as some of the best and most desirable examples of the genre; the previous scrimshaw auction record was also held by a Burdett tooth”, says Eldred’s.
“Multiple bidders were active on the lot through the $200,000 range,” Bourne said. “But then it settled down to just two bidders in the audience knocking heads. The room burst into applause when the hammer dropped.”
The Burdett tooth was followed immediately by the final 74 lots from the Thomas Mittler Scrimshaw Collection, “deemed one of the best private scrimshaw collections to come on the market since the Barbara Johnson Whaling Collection”, says Eldred’s. The Johnson group was sold at Sotheby’s over four auctions running between December 1981 and December 1983.
Best of the best
In that August 2016 ATG article, we wrote how several dealers and auctioneers had been holding back on sales until there was “more legislative clarity over the rules concerning its sale and importation”.
Regarding the current state of the scrimshaw market, Bourne said after the July 20 auction: “The best of the best pieces are coveted by the top collectors, who will pay top price. Whale teeth featuring whaling scenes seem to be particularly desirable.
“Lower to middle-range pieces are hit or miss. We saw very aggressive bidding on some moderate pieces, while a spectacular pair of scrimshaw walrus tusks was largely ignored, because walrus tusks don’t seem to be that popular right now.”
The top Mittler lot on July 20 was a lot of three teeth attributed to the ‘Arch Engraver’ which brought $200,000/£152,670 hammer on a $75,000-120,000 estimate.
Bourne said: “Amazingly, the teeth, which are from the same jawbone and have correlating scenes of active whaling, were discovered individually and assembled as a set for the first time in Mittler’s Collection.”
A fine example of a Susan (a Nantucket whaler) tooth by Frederick Myrick sold on low estimate at a hammer price of $100,000/76,340. “Only 32 Susan teeth are known to exist and they have long been considered a ‘holy grail’ of scrimshaw collectors, though most of the top collectors today now own one,” Bourne added.
He said: “Most of the Mittler pieces did very well, but the high to top-end pieces did exceedingly well.”
The Thomas Mittler Scrimshaw Collection was subject of a 2015 book, Through the Eyes of a Collector: The Scrimshaw Collection of Thomas Mittler, by scrimshaw historian Nina Hellman of Nantucket, MA. Mittler, who owned a large welding supply company in the Midwest and began collecting scrimshaw in 1969, died suddenly in 2010 aged 67.
Eldred’s had offered the first 60 Mittler lots last October, with another 60 on sale this April.