Antiques: Maritime collection fetches top dollar

Maybe you've always wanted to own a boat. For some people, a nice painting or print of one can be an even greater prize.

The consummate collector of maritime goods was the founder of the Independence Seaport Museum, J. Welles Henderson, who died last year. Though many of his finds are among the museum's permanent holdings, other pieces will pass into the hands of new owners this year as the collection is dispersed.

Five of Henderson's paintings sold at this month's American paintings sale at Sotheby's in New York and did exceptionally well. Most important was Thomas Eakins' 1903 portrait of Rear Adm. Charles Dwight Sigsbee, which brought $1,945,000, more than double the $700,000-$900,000 presale estimate.

A view of an unspoiled coastline at Atlantic City sold for $493,000. Sotheby's department head Dara Mitchell noted that the painting was a very fine example of the work of artist William Trost Richards (1833-1905).

Three Henderson lots by Thomas Birch (1779-1851) included a view of Philadelphia from the Delaware River that sold for $217,000 and one of Philadelphia Harbor that brought $229,000. The third Birch, USS United States vs. HMS Macedonian, which sold for $481,000, was once on loan to sea-loving President John F. Kennedy - it can be seen in photographs from the early 1960s, hanging near JFK's desk in the Oval Office.

At its height, Henderson's collection was used to illustrate the 1999 book Jack Tar: A Sailor's Life, 1750-1910, which he wrote with Rodney P. Carlisle. I interviewed Henderson at the time of its publication, and he inspired me with his enthusiasm for things maritime.

He opened the book with a story about his first acquisition: "As a 7-year-old in 1927, I gave 50 cents to save America's most historic ship, the USS Constitution - 'Old Ironsides.' For that donation, I received a small anchor made of metal and wood salvaged from the ship. This event changed my life - it was as if I had become transfused with saltwater."

Shortly after the interview, I found a print of the USS Constitution battling the HMS Guerriere in a frame with a brass label noting that the wood had been salvaged from the ship during that 1927 renovation. This treasure, purchased at an auction for about $200, now hangs on my son's wall.

At this year's Philadelphia Antiques Show, others may have been inspired in their hunt by "Fore & Aft: Philadelphia Collects Maritime." Craig Bruns, curator at the Seaport Museum, says the exhibit not only brought more guests to the museum, but it also resulted in the gift of a significant historical artifact.

Following the maritime theme, one of the show's dealers had brought an early, locally made barrel with an image of the Philadelphia port. Another dealer, Peter Tillou of Litchfield, Conn., purchased the barrel and donated it to the Seaport Museum, where it can now be seen.

The museum received a post-show gift from the Henderson collection as well, Bruns says: "Recently, we were given a circa 1793 painting of the Philadelphia ship Pigou, being chased by a French corsair. There was a very short period when we were at odds with the French, when they went after our shipping."

A wider variety of material from Henderson's collection will be offered Aug. 16 and 17 at the annual Marine, China Trade and Sporting Art Auction at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, N.H.

"Much of what is in [Henderson's] book is what we will be selling this summer," says Monica Reuss, head of the division at Northeast Auctions. "It's a really full array of paintings, prints, ceramics, silver, shipboard craft items - all of which illustrate the life of the sailor."

Henderson's collection will probably cover one day of the two-day sale, Reuss says. "He was an encyclopedic collector in his approach to the subject - nothing was too small."

A special lot will be the carving of Jack Tar pictured on the cover of the book. "It's very well-known and one of the top folk-art carvings in the country," she says.

Northeast's August sale always has some great maritime buys. If you can't afford a painting, there typically are great images of clippers and frigates on prints, some in the $200-$1,000 range.

Many of these engravings made their way onto china - transfer-printed blue-and-white, Liverpool jugs, and luster-edged pottery - that also typically sell for less than $1,000.

Among the prizes at last year's sale was an eight-spoke mahogany-and-brass ship's wheel marked "Williamson Bros., Philadelphia." It sold for $1,856.


Antiques: About the Sea

"Black Hands, Blue Seas: The Untold Maritime Stories of African Americans" opens June 6 at Independence Seaport Museum at Penn's Landing. Information: 215-413-8655 or www.phillyseaport.org.

The annual Marine, China Trade and Sporting Art sale takes place Aug. 16-17 at Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, N.H. Information: 603-433-8400 or www. northeastauctions.com.


"Antiques" appears monthly in The Inquirer. Read Karla Albertson's recent work at http://go.philly.com/kleinalbertson.