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Maritime and Sporting

Scrimshaw and Sailors' Art

Shrimshaw or 'scrimshande' as it is referred to in Moby Dick, has always been strong in specialist maritime sales. The majority of examples of scrimshaw are simply decorated with ship portraits and foul anchor motifs. These pieces are at the lower end of the market at £100-200 each, while the more elaborate sections command greater sums depending upon the subject.

One would think that the most valuable pieces of scrimshaw would be those with highly detailed ship decoration. While these pieces do fetch high figures at auction, it is typical of the bawdy sailors of the period that erotic scrimshaw fetches even higher prices. Often carved with scenes of a highly erotic nature or of 'niche' fantasies, the more anatomically correct and detailed pieces of scrimshaw often achieve £800-£1,200 at auction.

French Prisoner of war models are a fine example of the craftsmanship of the sailors of the 19th century. Cribbage boards and domino sets were made using bone, ivory and ebony. Small automatons were also made by French Prisoners of war and these command high prices at auction. The use of marine ivory also served for the working crew aboard ship, such as the marine ivory fid, shown here, used for the splicing of ropes at sea.

A 19th century sailors valentine.

A 19th century sailors valentine, sold for £7,000 in one of our maritime auctions.

Sailors Valentine is a term perhaps incorrectly used for the intricate shell mosaics that became popular in the 19th century. Originally thought to have been made by love sick lonely sailors for their sweethearts while away at sea, it is now thought that these valentines were purchased from traders in the Bahamas. The most common form of sailors valentine to be seen is an octagonal case with central heart or flowers.

Double case examples often have these decorations to one side, with a verse to the other. Smaller examples regularly fetch between £400-£600 at auction, double cased valentines between £800-£1,200. Larger examples of sailors valentines with intricate decoration can achieve £2,000 and above at auction.

One of the more unusual items to have been decorated by 18th and 19th century mariners were the large Coco de Mer nuts from the Seychelles. Blown from trees on the island the large nut floated out to sea where it was found by early 18th century sailors.

A pair of Coco de Mer.

A pair of Coco de Mer.

Until the Seychelles were discovered in 1768 ,it was thought that the nuts can from a mythical tree under the sea, and so they were treasured for their rarity. The unusual anatomical shape of the Coco de Mer has also given rise to its Latin name Lodoicea maldivica from its archaic Latin name Lodoicea callipyge in which clliypyge is the Greek for 'beautiful buttocks'.

Resourceful sailors would turn their hand to making small objects that could be sold once back in port. To this end, there are a number of pieces of straw work and wool work that appear at auction.

Boxes, cribbage boards and ship portraits were made from cutting and dying straw in the same manner of the straw appliqué work favored in the 17th century. Those pieces from the Napoleonic period are particularly sought after by collectors, later 19th century examples are more readily available for as little as £200-£300 for a Victorian straw work box.

Wool work portraits of ships can often be found at auction. Many of these wool work portraits are from the latter half of the 19th century, and show both sailing ships and the early steel vessels of the Royal Navy. May of the older ships were used as training vessels or as in the case of HMS Britannia, accommodation for the Naval College at Dartmouth.

Wool work pictures range from as little as £40-£60 for an un-named vessel to £300-£500 for a good example of a named ship.


Brian Goodison-BlanksBrian Goodison-Blanks
Department Head