What you see: A whalebone scrimshaw wall pocket, created circa 1870 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Sotheby’s estimates it at $2,500 to $3,500.
The expert: Erik Gronning, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of the Americana department.
The mid-19th century represented the peak of the American whaling industry. This scrimshaw wall pocket dates to circa 1870. Does the date plus its intricate nature point to this piece having been made on land rather than at sea? It’s hard to know. It could have been made on land or at sea.
But those facts are not proof it had to have been made on land? No. Very, very many delicate things were brought onto ships. We had a fabulous 18th century games table that had hand-forged hooks in the back to tether it to the floor so it wouldn’t move around.
So it wasn’t impossible to make something like this at sea, particularly if the ship was stuck in the doldrums. Right. Back then, you went by wind. If there was no wind or current to take you anywhere, you’d hang out for a couple of days.
Do we know anything about how this scrimshaw wall pocket came to be, and who might have made it? Since it’s a one-off, and because of the labor that went into it, they had to saw it. I can only imagine it was made for letters–to save precious letters from ports around the world. A lot of sailors’ art was made for loved ones. These guys were lonely at sea, and were thinking of loved ones back at home.
I wanted to clarify something. The lot notes call the scrimshaw wall pocket “one of the largest genuine single pieces of scrimshaw in existence”, but you mean one of the largest finished pieces in existence, yes? This is made from several pieces of whale bone, not a single one? Exactly.
How many pieces of whale bone went into it? There are seven main pieces and at least a dozen smaller pieces that are attached to it.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how hard the scrimshaw wall pocket was to make? It would have been hard because whale bone is brittle. Look at the stars. The stars come to a tiny point before they attach to the circles. When you’re cutting it, you’d have to be so careful not to crack the bone. People tend to forget the most difficult part is not the beginning, it’s the end. Imagine cooking a soufflé. If you pull it out at the wrong time, it collapses.
So we can assume that whoever made this had at least a few failed attempts at carving parts of the whole? Whoever made this… this was not their first time at the rodeo. They were skilled enough to make it, skilled enough to cut it and say, ‘This doesn’t look right, it’s the wrong scale’.
And one person would have made this scrimshaw wall pocket, working alone? Yes, we can assume one person did this.
What condition is the scrimshaw wall pocket in? It’s in remarkably good condition. One of the protrusions on the front–a little button–has been replaced. There are no breaks in it.
Does it show signs of having been used? It hung off the central circle from a wall. I’m sure someplace along coastal Massachusetts or Connecticut, somebody was lucky enough to have it in their hallway and threw letters in it. Or they had it in their bedroom and threw love letters in it. Who knows?
What is the scrimshaw wall pocket like in person? What does the camera not quite capture? What’s hard to grasp is the actual scale of it. It is big, and impressive for its size. I think a copy of Vogue magazine could fit in it, though you wouldn’t necessarily want to put Vogue magazine in it. Copper pins secure the parts.
Have the copper pins oxidized? There’s slight verdigris around them from the salty air. It’s wonderful.
What’s your favorite detail of the scrimshaw wall pocket? I love the central panel with the five stars. There’s good balance between the positive and the negative spaces. The artist had a great sense of scale. It was well thought out. I’m sure they drew it out on a piece of paper.
Yes. Today, we’d use computers to design something like this. You can tell it was fabricated by hand. A computer could not think it up as well as this. Because it’s handmade, there are slight, subtle incongruities. If it was done on a computer, out of plastic, it wouldn’t look like this. It would have no life to it. This has life to it. It looks mechanical because of the squares, but if you examine it, you can see the craftsmanship.
It looks delicate. Is it delicate? It’s light, but it’s a lot less delicate than you might think. It’s sturdy. It’s a minimum of an eighth of an inch to three-sixteenths of an inch thick. If you dropped it on the ground, it would shatter, but it’s stronger than you’d think. If you took it off its board and put it on a wall in your house, it’d be fine. You’d just want to make sure your hook is strong. But I think most collectors today would leave it as is, and make sure it’s preserved.
The scrimshaw wall pocket appears in two books that were published in the 1970s: a Time-Life book called The Whalers, and American Folk Sculpture by Robert Bishop. How, if at all, does its appearance in these books make it more interesting to collectors? Whenever an object has a history of publication in well-known books, it helps. American Folk Sculpture is still the bible of three-dimensional American folk art. It’s fantastic to have a piece from it.
Why will this scrimshaw wall pocket stick in your memory? Because of its scale and the overall artistic composition of it. It has a timeless quality, and it can go with any decor. When you look at it, it always puts a smile on your face. I think that’s good art, when you have an emotional connection to it.
How to bid: The scrimshaw wall pocket is lot 362 in Vineyard Dreams: Property from a Martha’s Vineyard Collection, a Sotheby’s online sale that opened on January 8, 2021 and continues to January 22, 2021.
Images are courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Please share this story on social media! It helps The Hot Bid grow.
Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.