Few images so capture the spirit of wanderlust, that insatiable passion for travel and adventure, than a ship on the open sea. From the moment the first oceanic explorers conquered the waves and set sail for new, exotic lands, humanity’s fascination with ships and the wondrous expeditions they represent was set. For some, a daily reminder of the endless possibilities of voyages taken, and those yet to come, surfaces in the form of nautical antiques.
A popular subject for artists, paintings of water, ships and harbors generally appeal to a wide audience and command very good prices at auction and in galleries. Grand 19th Century oils on canvas offer historic touches to traditional decor, while naive, folksy paintings from the same period blend well with a more modern aesthetic. In virtually every medium, across nearly every genre, artists have attempted to visually convey the appeal of open water and the spirit of those who roam it.
Infusing your collection with a bit of maritime whimsy need not be limited to art, however.
A most distinctive and interesting collecting category, nautical antiques take many forms. Of particular note in the market today are architectural and mechanical salvage items. From ship’s lanterns and portholes to gauges and binnacles, elements reclaimed from shipping vessels are often of a large scale and sophisticated, sleek form that commands a space. The rarest items are not always the most valuable. For example, portholes of various shapes are found at auction and antique shops - but lack a functional application unless remodeling is in your future. Values hover in the low hundreds. Higher prices are commanded for items that can be installed into a room without hassle, but still remain surprisingly affordable. An impressive standalone binnacle sold at Garth’s a few years ago for just $500. Ship’s clocks and lanterns are incredibly collectible and infinitely useable, appealing to a big audience of buyers. Prices range from $1,500 to $20,000 for choice clocks in wonderful condition, while lanterns are often found for $100 - $500.
More inconspicuous choices for collectors include items made or used by sailors. Scrimshaw, the carved and engraved keepsakes made from bone or ivory, can be very valuable; but, fakes abound, so buyers should beware and only buy from trusted companies. Sailor’s valentines are a bit more uncommon: constructed from shells, stones and simple wood frames, the sweet and sentimental gifts are a wonderfully charming collectible. Depending upon the intricacy of design, prices hover in the $1500 - $3500 range. Mechanical instruments are vital to success on the sea, and sextants, as one example, are a fascinating category. As interesting as they are attractive, sextants were a key development in oceanic exploration. Garth’s has sold simple models for just over $100, while more complex versions can exceed $1,000.
Just a few year’s ago, we were visiting with an antique dealer / friend at the preview party of a high-end antique show in New York City. As we perused his booth, he hurriedly completed the tag on a sailor’s valentine. When we inquired about his sudden excitement, he replied that a well-known American lifestyle maven was just a few booths away, and whispers about her fascination with valentines had made the way to him. She bought every example of the category at the show that day, and set into motion a market shift that is at the crux of supply and demand valuation. The market for nautical collectibles remains hot today, with no signs of cooling anytime soon.
Wanderlust is one of many reasons to embrace nautical antiques and fine art. One of our favorite quotes is “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” In our family, ships, anchors and seascapes are gentle reminders of living life with fortitude and tenacity. Whether you find inspiration, motivation or relaxation - maritime collectibles surely have a place in every abode.