Love of country and ‘Old Ironsides’ inspires former Marine’s nautical collection

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G. West “Westy” Saltonstall collection

G. West “Westy” Saltonstall at work in his Boston office, which is filled with nautical artifacts and mementos. The masted ship he’s facing is painted on a ship’s hatch cover.

By Meg Pier

A visitor to G. West “Westy” Saltonstall’s office could be forgiven for thinking he had mistakenly stumbled into a small gallery of maritime Americana. The glass-enclosed space overlooking a glittering Boston Harbor is a fitting home for the wealth management professional’s collection — which is nautical in nature.

The sea, a sense of place and “home” anchor Westy’s interest in antiques.

“I’m a Marine; I’m a sailor; I’m a historian; I’m a traditionalist; I’m part of an old Boston family and old Boston investment firm Eaton Vance,” he said.

Saltonstall found an empty Constitution Madeira bottle dating to the late 1700-1800s, carrying “Constitution / Class of 1802” seal. Photo courtesy U.S.S. Constitution Museum

“Since I was eight years old, I’ve lived in a house that was built by my great-grandfather and has never been out of the family,” he continued. “Being raised in New England and in a family involved in politics, I was brought up with an appreciation for the patriotic and historic. Growing up with Paul Revere’s home in your backyard, it just becomes a part of you.”

While marine-oriented, Westy calls his collection “unfocused” and notes it is esoteric, ranging from old cigar boxes to paintings to clocks. He pointed out a plank of wood resting on his desk, emblazoned with a painting of the “U.S.S. Constitution.” The ship is a subject of many of the pieces in his collection and an icon for which he has much affection.

“That’s a hatch cover and one of my favorite pieces,” he said. “The painting is accurate for one point in her history when she was not actually a fighting vessel and really more of a working rig.”

He went on to explain with a laugh that the piece is also unique because his wife made the purchase, adding that much of his collection is located in his office because his wife will only allocate so much space to it in their home.

Saltonstall’s love of the water dictated the branch of the military he chose to join. He served in the Marines from 1962 to 1965, as part of what he referred to as the “luckiest generation between Korea and Vietnam.” He’s proud to be a Marine, saying, “It was a life-altering experience and it stayed with me.”

Along with a passion for all things nautical, he said that a desire to serve has also been a thread throughout his life. In accepting a recent alumni award, he shared his belief that in addition to engaging in civic duty by supporting organizations such as the local school or hospital, people should get involved in a philanthropic organization just for the fun factor.

For Westy, that meant serving on the board of the U.S.S. Constitution Museum for 12 years.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the “U.S.S. Constitution,” commemorative Chelsea Clocks were commissioned to be made using bottom copper, a plank and nail from “Old Ironsides.” Saltonstall purchased one of the 13 made.

“The ship is 215 years old and her preservation is important,” he explained. “She is still a United States Navy vessel and manned by active duty sailors and the Department of the Navy is responsible for the maintenance. The Museum combines the nautical, military and historical, all of which are interests of mine. The Museum is the memory and educational voice for the ship.”

Saltonstall pointed out that this year is the bicentennial of the start of the War of 1812, in which “Old Ironsides” really earned her nickname.

“All the victories she had were significant, and it was particularly meaningful for a new nation to have this young upstart ship with which the Navy prevailed over Britain, the Queen of the Seas,” he said. “The Constitution is a wooden ship that saw a lot of action and has been rebuilt numerous times. Actually, the only piece of the original 1797 ship is in the bottom of the keel, which is sheathed in copper.”

Former Marine and board member of the U.S.S Constitution Museum Westy Saltonstall receives a walking stick made from one of the “U.S.S. Constitution’s” timbers. Photo courtesy U.S.S. Constitution Museum

Westy has several remnants of Old Ironsides herself in his collection.

He explained that in the past, the ship’s captains used to give away items made from the vessel’s wood that was being replaced. In a nod to that tradition, when Westy stepped down from the Constitution’s board, he was given a walking stick that was made from its timber by one of the crewmembers.

On the stroke of the hour, Westy’s other Old Ironsides memorabilia announced itself with a series of chimes. Mounted on his office wall is a Chelsea Clock that Westy purchased on the ship’s 200th anniversary. In honor of the occasion, the famed clockmakers were commissioned to create 13 timepieces incorporating relics from the “Constitution,” including pieces of plank, copper and a nail from the bottom of the ship. Chelsea Clocks are prized by collectors and ride aboard many of world’s finest yachts to ports large and small around the world.

A souvenir of just such a journey was discovered by Saltonstall in his cellar.

“I found an old bottle of what was labeled as Constitution Madeira in my cellar,” he said. “The Madeira itself was long since gone, but the bottle was obviously antique and labeled with a tag. I took it into the Constitution Museum and they really researched it thoroughly. The curator discovered that in the late 1700-1800s, when ships regularly went on ’round-the-world cruises, officers were allowed to bring back wine, rum, port, or Madeira.

“The chaplain of the ‘U.S.S. Constitution’ at one point was a classmate of my great-grandfather,” Westy continued. “They had a group that used to get together in a boarding house over in East Boston, and eat, drink and who knows what else. They swapped bottles and that’s how my forefather ended up with this bottle of Madeira that sailed on one of the ‘Constitution’s’ around-the-world voyages.

“The bottle didn’t have a label but was wired with a wooden tag – in private collections like that they would open the bottle up from time to time, and probably strain it, turn it and recork it with a fresh cork, so it wouldn’t dry out and evaporate,” he explained.

While some remnants of history are ephemeral, it is the spirit of tradition in collecting, and in life, that speaks to Saltonstall. “Since a child, I’ve always found fascinating the pomp and circumstance, little boys and big bands,” he said. “Once a Marine, always a Marine.

The sense of pride and patriotism has always stayed with me. Clearly history is behind all that, and it all has meaning. That carries on, and I still like to go to parades.”

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