A model ship lover’s paradise
The man certainly loved his ships. He had decorated his walls with oil paintings of clipper ships in the living room, dining room, and the upstairs hallway and several other rooms.
The paintings went for a pittance at auction; not many people were scrambling to buy them as we stood in the cramped spaces of the home, which looked as if it hadn’t been touched up since the day it was built – except, perhaps, for some beautiful wooden doors with stained glass windows that led to a dining room.
The man’s collection was among the latest auction of nautical items that I had attended in the last month of so. This same auction house had held a major sale of items in October from the Independence Seaport Museum and the former Commercial Museum (which later became the Civic Center Museum, now closed), both in Philadelphia.
Many of those items were described as “non-accessioned property” from the Seaport museum. I’ve written about museums de-accessioning items from their collections – donations they had initially intended to keep. Non-accessioned items, I learned, were intended to be sold from the beginning. One museum site noted that they were meant for studying, decorating museum space or were “unrestricted” gifts that museums could readily dispose of.
The items at the October auction were primarily 19th- and 20th-century models of ships from all types of cultures, giving me a historical peek at the maritime industry in Asian, American and European locales. There were ship half-models from a local shipyard; a kayak from Paris; rice and fish boats from China; American clipper ships; a Philippines boat model with an exhibition label; battleships and ships in bottles.
Accessories were also plentiful: U.S. Navy ammunition belts, helmets, plaques, buckles, compasses, crab trap, Chinese opium pipes, textiles from Burma, horse blankets. Some other unusual items may have been tangential to ship travel: two Haitian embroidered girls dresses from 1926 and several articles of children’s clothing from Martinique, from the 19th century. Maybe they were brought back from a voyage.
One of the most famous was a model of the American clipper ship Flying Cloud, which sailed between New York and San Francisco around the tip of South America during the 19th century. It set a world’s record in 1851 when it cut the 200-day trip between the two cities to 89 days. It was helmed by a female navigator named Eleanor Cressy, husband of the captain and an expert pilot.
Three years later, the ship beat its own record, which stood until 1989.
When I previewed the items on the auction-house website, I was struck by several large wooden structures. I wasn’t sure what they were but was curious to see them in person. They were lined upright against a wall overlooking a Hart-Sioux collapsible kayak from the 1940s-1950s, made in Paris (sold for $250). The structures were models of half bodies of ships, all wood, with pencil markings on them. I learned that they were called half hulls, because they were three-dimensional wooden models of ships cut in half.
Most of them had been made in the 1960s and 1970s by Sun Shipbuilding in Camden, NJ, according to the auction sheet. In my research, though, I found that the wood models for two oil tankers were more likely built at Sun Shipbuilding in Chester, PA. New York Shipbuilding was located in Camden. The half ship models sold for $30 to $250.
Here’s a sampling of the items and their sale prices (which do not include the auction-house premium of 15 percent):
Large-scale oceanliner (118 ½”) SS Liberte. The original began its life as the German ocean liner SS Europa in the 1920s, and was turned over to France after Germany’s defeat in World War II. The model drew the highest price at the auction: $2,400.
Haitian girls dresses and other children’s clothing from the Caribbean, $5 to $30.
4 Chinese opium pipes from late 19th century, $100 to $180.
11 apothecary jars with botanical samples, $650, the highest. Most went for more than $100.
Asian ship models. Most went for less than $100.