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Scrimshaw tooth with 18th century whaling scene fetches $456K

A whale's tooth with an elaborate scrimshaw scene of the late 18th century ships, done by engraver Edward Burdett, set a record when it realized $456,000 during Eldred's Marine Sale July 20.

EAST DENNIS, Mass. – Nearly 500 lots of maritime art crossed the block at Eldred’s Marine Sale on July 20. The first lot — a scrimshaw whale’s tooth with a whaling scene by Edward Burdett — set a record-setting pace. It is considered a masterpiece by many in the collecting community. Bidding moved quickly from the opening of $100,000 and rose to $456,000 before the gavel fell. This price is believed to be the record price for a piece of scrimshaw.

“I knew the tooth 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.”

Record-Setting Tooth Boasts Historic Whaling Scene

Burdett scrimshaw tooth with whaling scene

Scrimshaw whale's tooth by Edward Burdett, sold for $456,000. (All photos courtesy Eldred's)

The tooth came to auction from a private American collection and had a pre-sale estimate of $160,000 to $210,000. It is inscribed “Engraved by Edward Burdett of Nantucket Onboard the Ship William Tell”. It depicts a whaling scene of the William Tell and the George and Susan on the obverse. There is a coastal view of the whaleship William Thomson on the reverse. Based on shipping records, it is likely the William Tell encountered the ships while in the Pacific whaling grounds. This took place sometime between October 1830 and February 1833.

Edward Burdett, a pioneer of American Scrimshaw, was born in Nantucket in October 1805 and went on his first whaling voyage in 1822. He died in November 1833 after being entangled in the line and dragged overboard by a whale. His scrimshaw pieces are widely regarded as some of the best and most desirable in the genre. The previous scrimshaw auction record was also held by a Burdett's tooth.

“Multiple bidders were active on the lot through the $200,000 range,” Bourne remarked. “But then it settled down to just two bidders in the audience knocking heads. The room burst into applause when the hammer dropped.”

Storied Scrimshaw from Mittler Collection Brings $240,000

The Burdett tooth with the historic whaling scene 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 Collection. Eldred’s offered the first 60 lots from the collection in its Marine Art Auction last October. The highlight of the sale was a whale’s tooth with whaling scene by W.L. Roderick. The example brought $180,000, a record price for the scrimshander.

The top Mittler lot in this session, however, handily beat that price. A lot of three teeth attributed to the Arch Engraver brought $240,000 on a $75,000 to $120,000 estimate. Amazingly, the teeth, from the same jawbone with correlating scenes of an active whaling scene, were discovered individually. They were assembled as a set for the first time in Mittler’s Collection, Bourne said.

Other star performers were a tooth inscribed “Ship George Clinton of Hudson, Sept. 9, 1835, Lat 2S=50 Long 169W=40”. It sold for $51,000 on a $15,000 to $25,000 estimate. A serpent-form pie crimper illustrated in “Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders, Whales and Whalemen” by E. Norman Flayderman, sold for $25,200 on a $12,000 to $16,000 estimate. Plus, a baleen busk with multiple images of whaling scene brought $4,800 on a $500 to $1,000 estimate.

'Holy Grail' Example of Scrimshaw Tooth Changes Hands

A fine example of a “Susan” tooth by Frederick Myrick sold for $120,000 on a $100,000 to $150,000

Arch Engraver tooth

A lot of three teeth attributed to the Arch Engraver brought $240,000. (Courtesy of Eldred's)

estimate. Only 32 “Susan” teeth are known to exist. They have long been considered a “holy grail” of scrimshaw collectors. However, most of the top collectors today now own one, Bourne said.

The “Vignette Tooth”, depicting a variety of whaling scene and ship portraits, sold for $96,000. The sale price was more than double the high estimate of $45,000. A nearly identical example was sold at Eldred’s in 2011 for $46,000, perhaps an indication of the current healthiness of the scrimshaw market.

“Most of the Mittler pieces did very well, but the high to top end pieces did exceedingly well,” Bourne commented.

The Thomas Mittler Scrimshaw Collection was the subject of the 2015 book, “Through the Eyes of a Collector: The Scrimshaw Collection of Thomas Mittler”, by Scrimshaw historian Nina Hellman of Nantucket, Mass. Mittler, who owned a large welding supply company in the Midwest and began collecting Scrimshaw in 1969, died suddenly in 2010 at age 67. According to Hellman, Mittler particularly loved large teeth, but his Collection also included a number of whaleman-made utilitarian items including swifts, crimpers, busks, tools, blocks, etc. Estimates ranged from $300 to $500 to $100,000 to $150,000.

Other highlights from earlier sessions of the Collection include a pair of polychrome whale’s teeth with naval scenes, which sold for $132,000, and a pair of whale’s teeth by Long Island whaleman Manuel Enos depicting colorfully dressed women, which sold for $120,000. Total sales on the 182 pieces from Collection were just shy of $1.83 million, far surpassing the $1.35 million pre-sale estimates. More than 99% of the lots sold.

Scrimshaw outside the Mittler Collection also performed well in the July sale, highlighted by a pan bone plaque depicting a whaling scene by W.L. Roderick titled “The Death”, which sold within estimate for $39,000, and a small whale tooth with a beautifully detailed whaling scene signed and dated “W.P. Marshall 1833”, which sold over high estimate for $5,700. A bone ship model illustrated on the cover of John Rinaldi’s “The Lloyd Collection of Napoleonic Prisoner-of- War Artifacts”, sold for $36,000 to a phone bidder.

“Scrimshaw obviously made up the core of the sale, but there was very strong and active bidding in lots of other areas, particularly contemporary marine paintings,” said Joshua Eldred, company president.

Maritime Art Catch Bidders' Attention

Ships That Pass painting

"Ships That Pass" by Montague Dawson realized $84,000.

“Ships That Pass” by English painter Montague Dawson (1895-1973), the cover lot of the auction catalog, brought $84,000 on its $30,000/50,000 pre-sale estimate, the day’s top earner in the painting category. Other highlights include “Dedication Day, Statue of Liberty, Oct. 28, 1886” by William G. Muller (New York, b. 1937), which sold for $12,500, two scenes of American frigates by Derek Montague Gardner (English, 1914-2007), which sold for a combined $19,800, triple their pre-sale estimates, and a Louis Dodd (English, 1943-2006) scene of navy ships off Boston, which sold for $10,000 on a $4,000/6,000 pre-sale estimate.

Also soaring above their pre-sale estimates were a Lorenz Petersen (German, 1803-1870) portrait of the bark Jane E. Williams of Connecticut, which sold for $9,600, and a Chinese School view of a pagoda, which sold for $4,375. A China Trade portrait depicting the two Scudder girls of Barnstable, Massachusetts, sold just under estimate for $3,600; the lot included the daguerreotype of the two girls on which the painting was based, and the painting retained the original label verso for artist Hin Qua.

A lavishly illustrated journal of four whaling voyages out of Provincetown, Massachusetts, sold for $57,000, another of the day’s top earners. Kept by Nathan Young, the journal, which included a harrowing entry of a whaleboat being dragged under by a whale as well as enlightening descriptions of weekly meal plans aboard ship, the day-to-day activities of the whalemen and a detailed drawing of a whaleboat on davits, carried a $20,000/30,000 pre-sale estimate.

Model Ship Sets Sail

Period half hull models also had a strong showing in the sale, with many selling above estimate. A handful of bidders chased a model of a sailing Garvey with notations indicating it was built in New Jersey in 1886 to $3,360; it had a pre-sale estimate of $500/700.

“This really reminded me of the sales from when I was a kid,” Eldred said. “It was a packed room with lots of floor bidding. The majority of the items were bought, paid for and picked up the same day, which just never happens in our world today of online and phone bidding. We’ve been doing Marine Sales for 50 years, and this felt in many ways like one of those old-time auctions.”

Bourne spoke briefly from the block just before starting the auction about Eldred’s long tradition with marine sales, and about how excited his father, longtime auctioneer Dick Bourne, and Josh Eldred’s father, Bob Eldred, Jr., would have been about the day’s offerings. Dick Bourne and Bob Eldred, who both passed away in the past year and a half, were amongst the first auctioneers to organize dedicated marine art auctions.

More Maritime Offerings Coming to Auction August 2017

At the conclusion of the auction, the firm also revealed pieces from the Kobacker Scrimshaw

Whaling journal

Whaling journal from 18th century sold for $57,000.

Collection, which it will be selling over two upcoming auction sessions (dates to be determined). The Kobacker Collection, amassed by Arthur and Sara Jo Kobacker of Nantucket, includes two “Susan” teeth by Frederick Myrick, multiple examples by the Ceres artisan, a large group of patriotic-themed teeth, exceptional pie crimpers, canes, swifts and more.

“It’s comparable in quality to the Mittler Collection but slightly smaller in number,” Bourne said. “It’s not as publicized a collection, but it is a real gem. Collectors were duly impressed when the pieces were unveiled”.

Eldred’s Marine Sale was conducted at the company’s headquarters in East Dennis, Massachusetts. The firm’s next auction, the Americana, Paintings and Sporting Art Auction, will be held August 2-4. The firm will also conduct a Contemporary Paintings Auction on August 10, in which a portion of the proceeds will benefit pediatric cancer research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and it will conclude its summer auction series with its 50th Annual Asian Art Week, running August 22-26.

For more information, visit or call 508-385-3116.