The US is by far the major market where the 18th and 19th century carving of sperm whale teeth and baleen is recognised as an important part of the folk art tradition.
David Weston, the Kent dealer in maritime works of art, has just returned from the US. He told ATG: “Recently, there are signs that the American scrimshaw market is reviving. Sotheby’s New York and Skinners of Boston have started selling scrimshaw again. In most American states scrimshaw can now be sold if it can be certified as over 100 years old.
“Imports to the US are also allowed when the buyer has arranged the necessary paperwork prior to shipping: an American import licence and a CITES certificate backed by expert opinion guaranteeing the age of the object.”
A big test of the market was the Carol and Stephen Memishian collection sold on August 6 by auctioneer Rafael Osona in Nantucket – a key venue for collectors and dealers for many years. This market bellwether performed well with a record $50,000 (£38,000) bid for an walrus ivory and baleen stay busk.
This superb example, made by a mid-19th century sailor as a token of love for his sweetheart to wear inside her corset, was finely executed in polychrome with four pictorial registers depicting a British warship between two fashionable beauties and a flower-filled urn. The baleen to the verso has five similar registers including two depictions of British warships. The price is thought to be a record for a stay busk.
Leading the sale at $100,000 (£76,000) was a sperm whale tooth from 1838 attributed to master scrimshanders Thomas and Calab Albro who were aboard the John Coggeshall of Newport, Rhode Island. It included a series of finely observed vignettes titled View of a Sperm Whale just Harpooned – Ship John Coggeshall of Newport, RI, View of Cutting a Sperm Whale – A Whale Spout and A Large Sperm Whale Will Make 100lbs Oil.
Another major American scrimshaw collection is being sold by Cape Cod saleroom Eldreds in October.