“Navigating Nautical Antiques,” Hartford Courant, August 22, 2008   “Who am I?” may be the modern existential dilemma, but for many centuries, “Where am I?” was a more urgent practical problem. Navigation instruments are relics of that time.  In the case of the sextant, “finding yourself” required an understanding of astronomy.  Sailors used the sextant to calculate longitude and latitude by measuring the angle between the horizon and sun (or another celestial body).    At a time of economic uncertainty, many families have dry docked the yacht.  Maritime antiques, however, remain affordable. “Anything associated with boating” is how Doug Szydlo, the owner of the Collinsville Antiques Co. in New Hartford, defines the field. Navigation instruments are just the start.   Tillers, signal flags, and running lights are also on the list.  Maritime collecting attracts not only weekend boatmen but amateurs of military history, exploration, and the scientific revolution. For those on a budget, the advice is to seek out the overlooked and forgotten.  Steamboat-era telescopes sell at auction for as little as a $100, while bidding for models made in the ever-popular 18th century tends to be at least four or five times higher. And rope pulleys are an example of the miscellaneous equipment that can be turned into bric-a-brac. Vintage specimens pass through the saleroom for $10 or $20. There are, though, plenty of high-demand things mixed in with the inexpensive ones. Szydlo cites Victorian diving helmets as an example of the novelty antique that often tops the $10,000 mark. One of the surest gauges of value is historical association.  When an object is tied to a famous ship or event, the price rises.  In other words, if you’re out to save money, stay away from the Titanic.    Mementoes from the notorious shipwreck break auction records at ocean liner theme sales in New York and London.  Occasionally, though, inexpensive Titanic memorabilia surfaces on the local market.  A vintage postcard that was published soon after the tragedy sold for $80 last fall at Alexander Autographs, an auction house in Stamford that specializes in manuscripts, ephemera, and historic memorabilia.  “Supply and demand” is how auctioneer Bill Panagopulos explains the range of prices.  He cites the telegrams that were sent by Titanic survivors aboard the rescue ship Carpathia.  These attract a lot of excitement and there are never more than a few at a time in circulation. Consequently, they rarely sell for less than $1000. Popular culture has a big influence on prices, says Panagopulos.  Despite the headline-making sales for the rare one-off mementoes, the Titanic market has cooled since the release of the Titanic movie in 1997. The Napoleonic era, by contrast, is on the rise, thanks to Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the fictional naval captain Jack Aubrey. Prices run high, especially for things associated with Horatio Nelson, the English commander, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  According to Panagopulos, while ten years ago you could buy at auction an autograph letter signed by Nelson for $2,000, that amount today buys only a signature.  A walking stick that was made from the wood and copper of the flagship that Nelson commanded during the Naples campaign of 1799 is representative of the Nelson collectibles that sell—but do not stay—in Connecticut.  Last fall at Alexander Autographs, it was bought by an English bidder for $1,880.  “In England, Nelson is a god,” says Panagopulos, who ends up shipping most Nelson-related consignments overseas. As always, collectors need to be on the lookout for fakes.  Szydlo gives the example of the ship’s wheel—a highly desirable artifact in maritime interiors. They are typically made of teak or mahogany and have spoke handles worn smooth by the helmsman’s calloused hands. But, he says, “There are only so many to go around.” So somewhere in China, new ones are being manufactured. Not surprisingly, reports Szydlo, most maritime collectors are men.  Panagopulos agrees: “Women are too sensible,” he says explaining the dearth of female activity in hunting down the autographs of obscure sea captains.  The maritime look is masculine—sometimes defiantly so. It is one of those fields (along with big game taxidermy) that men seek out after divorce or in resolute affirmation of their bachelorhood. All that polished brass and a functional military aesthetic are suitable for the study, library, and bar.  Replacing the windows with salvaged portholes and installing a ventilator on the front lawn are extreme manifestations.  There is the risk, moreover, of being mistaken for the local chowder house. If the captain of S. S. Suburbia happens to have a wife, the décor can be softened with objects related to maritime history.  Panagopulos recommends scrimshaw, the ornaments and utensils that sailors carved from whale teeth.  The Chinese porcelain that was exported to the West in clipper ships is another tradition. For modern interiors, check eBay for vintage ocean liner publicity—the magazine spreads and fare charts—that sell for less than $30 and can be slipped into inexpensive frames.  Posters are a bigger splurge, with prices for original postwar specimens starting in the low hundreds.  David Pollack Vintage Posters in Sherman has a good stock. A vintage poster is the closest many of us will come to a cruise during this stay-at-home summer. For vicarious adventure, maritime collecting goes far. “People like the fact that these items have been used for conquering the earth’s frontiers for hundreds of years,” says Szydlo.
Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Collecting Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971