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Collecting Nautical Antiques
by Bob Brooke

 

Before you start collecting nautical antiques, you should visit maritime museums, purchase some good reference books on the subject, and when it comes time to buy, find a nautical dealer who will share his or her knowledge so that you can make a profitable purchase.

Many nautical collections start with something passed down in the family, found in the attic, or picked up for a song. Good items to start with are mid-19th-century items such as box compasses, ship's lights, old but not antique sextants, ship's flags, deck watches, chronometers, and prints.

There were also Walker logs, Waltham, and Hamilton chronometers, Chadburn's and Ray's & Co. telegraphs, as well as ship's lights by Perko, and Griffith & Sons. Sextants by C. Plath, Heath, Freiberger, Kelvin & Wilfred White.

But you need to be careful when collecting nautical antiques. A good many nautical reproductions, primarily of the astronomical type of nautical instruments, were made in the Islamic countries in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Unlike other antiques, reproductions don’t have an adverse effect on the nautical market.

Dating Nautical Instruments
When attempting to date an early nautical instrument, you must consider the state of communications in the 12th through the 18th centuries. The word of new inventions and discoveries was slow to travel. For this reason, it was not uncommon for an innovation to actually be "reinvented" many times over. Unless an instrument has its date of manufacture on it, the margin of error in dating it can be as much as 20 years--more in the case of older instruments.

When dating an instrument, you can go by the maker's name on the box or label, the configuration and construction of the box, the instrument’s size, type of wood used in its construction verses brass, and evidence of ivory construction of some components. In the case of sextants and octants, the presence of backsight, a wooden index arm verses a brass one, a flat brass index arm verses a braced one, the absence of a locking screw on the index arm, the presence of a vernier scale and the type of scale division as well as the presence of a scale magnifier affixed to the index arm. Lastly, the configuration of filters or shades.

There are many well-known makers of nautical instruments. For instance, Edward Samuel Ritchie, who invented the liquid compass in 1862. Henry Gregory of London, famous for his compasses, also made quadrants and globes from 175001792. Charles Baker made a full range of nautical instruments from 1851-1858. Carl Plath, of Hamburg, Germany, had a reputation for manufacturing the finest nautical instruments in the world at the turn of the century.

The Nautical Antiques Market
The nautical market is stronger today than ever—at least for the rarer, high-end items, You can still discover fine examples of the Hadley quadrant at premium prices, but you wouldn’t want to start your collection there. But later and smaller octants are much more common and affordable.

Another early piece to recently come on the market was a rare hydrographic surveying sextant known as the 'Quintant'. This large instrument, made by the London firm of Cary, was designed to take triangulation sightings when making soundings for Admiralty sea charts. This piece sold for $4,500. This high price can partly be explained by the overall good condition of the piece--many antique sextants or octants on the market are defective or incomplete, reflecting the hard-working heritage of these invaluable maritime tools.

If you’re on a most budget, you can still find interesting and historical sextants. A typical 19th century octant would probably cost about $900.

The market began to broaden with the popularity of the film “Titanic.” Formerly only the elite, educated and wealthy could collect the very best nautical antiques.” Today, that has all changed. Fine high-end nautical items aren’t as plentiful as they used to be, even in seafaring Maine.

Sailing antiques, in particular, are getting hard to find. If you look at the “Merchant List” which lists all active ships for a given year from 1890, you’ll find an amazing number that sank in storms. When a wooden ship sinks, not much is left, because most of it is wood.

Buying and Selling Nautical Antiques
As a collector of nautical antiques, you must keep up with prices and be prepared to sell at a moments notice. Sometimes prices of some objects can actually go down, particularly if the category has gone out of favor with collectors. Remember that however much fun it is to collect nautical hardware or uniforms, there may not be many buyers when its time to sell. It’s also important to consider if you can store and/or display a particular item before you purchase it. And dealers are often reluctant to carry bulky items in their inventory.

You should be wary of ship’s wheels as every ship had more than one---some had several—and these are the items that tended to be saved when the ship was broken up. So there are lots of them around. How many ships have existed over time? There are so many in existence that they usually aren’t worth as much as people think.

Generally, nautical collectors often don’t want to pay top dollar for artifacts. They will, however, pay for items that are well documented and have a known provenance, such as an association with a personality, a famous ship or event. He says that chronometers, once an item in demand, are off their high values as are ship’s wheels, lanterns and binnacles which were all once commanding high values. Now, for example, good quality original prints of photographs, or albums are desirable, as are letters, diaries and documents.

People are currently paying way too much for the average nautical antique, based on inflated values being pitched on television and unrealistic expectations by accumulators and collectors. Television programs about pickers and pawn shops are building unrealistic expectations of values. In real life prices paid by serious collectors and dealers will be much less than portrayed on television.

You should keep a notebook in which to record details of every item you purchase no matter how small a transaction. That notebook itself will become a valuable tool later in the life of the collection. Record details, information about the seller, diagrams, descriptions and any research you may undertake related to the item. The notebook should be bound so that you don’t lose bits of paper and everything is kept in chronological order.


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