Old salts' legacy pays a premium

If anyone has the credentials for collecting maritime memorabilia it must be Desmond Adcock.
By · 30 Oct 2013
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30 Oct 2013
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If anyone has the credentials for collecting maritime memorabilia it must be Desmond Adcock.

He's a professional fisherman, now semi-retired, based in Redcliffe, Brisbane. He's spent a lifetime gathering crabs from the shallow waters of Moreton Bay.

His vast collection of scrimshaw, whalebone objects, paintings of ships and naval weapons sold at Mossgreen auctions in Melbourne last Wednesday afternoon.

Paul Sumner, Mossgreen's specialist in Australian and European art and antiques, described the scrimshaw section as the best he's seen and, as predicted, "it went nuts". All but two lots sold, the majority for well above estimates.

Best result was for a narwhal tusk (estimates $700 to $1000) which sold for $4780, including buyers premium (IBP). Two whale's teeth engraved with 19th-century ships, both estimated at $1000 to $1500, sold for $1830 and $1708 respectively (both IBP). Lot 22 sold for $1952 IBP.

A pair of antique whale eardrums, mounted on harpoon tips, were estimated at $200 to $440 but sold for $1342 IBP.

The collecting and engraving of whale artefacts, practised by mariners since ships first sailed the seas, is now tinged with controversy. They are subject to CITES (Convention of International Trade among Endangered Species) restrictions, but if the scrimshaw can be certified to pre-date 1975 - the date the convention was ratified - they can be imported and exported.

Sumner credits the success of the standing-room-only sale to the exotic nature of the subject.

Maritime and nautical collecting is popular around the world and there were plenty of salty sea dogs making bids.

Adcock has been collecting these objects seriously for only 15 years, so his collection is remarkable. He bought several examples of scrimshaw from the estate of Des Liddy, Australia's foremost authority. Liddy claimed that he found most of his collection in Tasmania, often left unwanted in someone's back shed.

Exceptional examples signed by recognised scrimshaw artists have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in America.

Another section of the Adcock collection included walking sticks with carved whalebone handles. Again this attracted a strong response, with a 19th-century "fist and dice" handled cane, selling for $3904 IBP. Estimates were $2000 to $3000.

A small selection of weapons related to shipping and whaling included two rare Pierce harpoon guns dating back to the 1850's. Adcock says he managed to pick these up very cheaply from a UK auction because they didn't know what they were. These sell for up to $10,000 in the US. They sold for $3904 and $6344 IBP.

Maritime paintings are of special interest to Adcock although these were less successful on the day. He prefers accurate depictions of ships in a style that emerged when early photographers found that their technology couldn't capture a vessel in full flight on the open sea. They teamed up with artists who could convey this on canvas and sold the works in naval centres like Sydney and Newcastle.

The artists are often anonymous, although signed works by Reginald Borstel, Walter Barratt and William Edgar are the most desirable. Lot 168, an oil painting of the barque Zanita by Borstel, is typical of the style but sold for less than estimates for $2440 IBP. Best seller was a portrait of the clipper ship Mimosa (artist unknown) for a little over $10,000.

Total of the sale was around $250,000, likely to increase to $300,000 with after-sales, so its safe to assume he's made a neat return from his original investment. There's money in whalebone.
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