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A Cure for Historical Aficionados

Ardent collector Chris Caswell explores all things nautical, to help you find your next treasure.

May 21, 2010

My friend Alec is a professional seaman who, while in France, came across an old sextant in a small antique shop near the waterfront. He was intrigued, but returned to his ship where he e-mailed me, asking what I thought.

I answered, “If it calls to you, buy it.”

He made an excuse of finding some non-fat milk to get ashore, raced to the antique shop, bartered with the elderly owner, and walked out with the sextant.

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“When I held that sextant in my hand, I felt many different things,” he wrote. “I could feel the ghost of one sailor’s cold hands, one generation of sea captains handing down to another generation, perhaps a junior officer learning noon sights from his captain. Maybe it was responsible for ships safely crossing oceans, maybe it was lowered down on a rope to a lifeboat that was leaving a sinking ship. You don’t know the significance until you are at sea and your life depends on it. It is something worth its weight in gold the minute you cross the 90-fathom curve leaving Spain and Africa. Maybe it’s my destiny to hand this sextant down the line…”

If ever there were a perfect description of why we collect nautical memorabilia, this was it: Because it makes us feel good when we look at it or hold it. His sextant, perhaps two centuries old, was brass and ebony and faded mirrors, with the scale inscribed on yellowed ivory. It was from a time when ships creaked and canvas sails pulled hard, and just holding it had converted Alec into a collector looking for more.

Let’s look at some other nautical collectibles:

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Sextants
Sextants and their kin (octants, backstaffs, and quadrants) are in demand as collectibles for many reasons. The craftsmanship is usually superb, particularly since lives depended upon their accuracy, and the materials of mahogany, ebony, ivory, and brass make for an interesting display.

Most collectors of nauticalia are involved with the sea, often as yacht owners, so sextants are both familiar and alien. We live in a world of chart plotters and satellite navigation, but sextants are a reminder that noon sights and star shots were once the very essence of navigation and something that every skipper knew well. Even today, many ocean races require a celestial navigator and a sextant aboard, just in case the electronics go zap.

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Octants were in use from the time John Hadley designed the first in 1731, and sextants were developed from the octant, entering common use around 1800. Most were made with brass frames, and silver often replaced ivory for the scales. For security, all came in sturdy boxes, usually with a certificate inside the lid noting the last accuracy check. One basic visual difference between the two devices is the sextant has a scale occupying one-sixth of a circle, while the octant is smaller at one-eighth of a circle.

Because sextants were found on every ship and captains often carried their own, they are not uncommon and can be found at many dealers that specialize in antique or scientific instruments. Be wary, however, because fake sextants are flooding the market. At press time, a 19th century sextant with silver scale, two sights, and a fitted mahogany case was offered by a reputable British dealer for about $750. For shopping tips, visit Antique & Scientific Instruments UK at www.asiuk.net/nautical.htm.

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Barometers
Knowing where you were and where you were going was only part of the essence of seafaring, because steering into a storm, or, alternatively, into a calm, could be fatal. The early nautical barometers of the 1800s are unlike what you’d expect, especially if you’re used to having a round barometer and wall clock as a matched set.

Early barometers were tall and stick-like, with the mercury reading taken against an ivory scale, set in a case often ornately carved from mahogany, rosewood, or other exotic woods. Frequently combined with the barometer was a sympiesometer, which used alcohol and hydrogen gas rather than mercury to measure barometric pressure, and a thermometer was commonly found on the gimbaled barometer “stick.”

Because of the fragility of barometers, the stick style from the 1800s is both rare and expensive, often in the $9,000 to $12,000 range depending on the condition and provenance.

An interesting sidenote: most English barometers had only pressure readings, while American barometers simplified matters by adding the “Fair-Change-Rain-Dry” indicators.

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Chronometers
Accurate time was critically essential not just for finding longitude, but for timing speeds and distances, so, in 1714, the British Admiralty offered the astronomical (no pun intended) prize of £20,000 that was awarded to Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison for his marine chronometer. It took another hundred years to perfect, but by the early 1800s, chronometers were aboard all ships in the Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine.

Once a prized possession of every ship’s captain, (these now antique) chronometers are fairly common, with 56-hour movements, usually mounted on gimbals inside a case similar to the ones that house box compasses. Moore and Arnold are two British makers of early chronometers, while Seth Thomas and Chelsea Clock Co. are prominent among American clockmakers. An American 1918 Waltham boxed ship’s chronometer is on the market for about $2,500, and chronometers from the 1800s can easily run $3,000 to $5,000. For shopping tips, log onto La Timonerie Antiquities Marine (France) at www.la-timonerie-antiquites.com.

Navigation Tools
Even navigational instruments can make enjoyable collectibles. Today, most skippers simply dial in a waypoint and set their course, but, in the days of paper charts, a parallel rule was essential for striking a course on the chart. The most common parallel is the “walking” parallel, with two rulers linked by movable bars. More interesting as a collectible is the rolling ruler, which had a pair of knurled rollers to move it accurately across a chart. Usually made of brass and with the maker’s mark inscribed, these polish up to a high shine for display. An all-brass rolling parallel from World War II with the British Navy emblem, housed in a wooden box, is currently on the market for $350 (Antiques of the Sea; www.antiquesofthesea.com).

Like the parallels, a set of dividers was in every captain’s navigation case. These were often from a base metal because they were made for engineers and draftsmen ashore, and then taken to sea. But, unlike the plain dividers found in marine stores today, early dividers were often adorned with inscribed filigree or ornate locking screws. Expect to pay $150 and up, depending on the age, which can date back as far as the 1600s (but those are a lot more).

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Compasses
Once a position was found, setting a course was another navigational challenge faced by ship captains and, like the sextant, there are a variety of compasses to be enjoyed as collectibles. The two basic types are dry—where the compass ring spins on a jeweled pin—and wet—where the compass ring floats in a liquid.

If you have the space, you can probably find a complete binnacle topped by a compass under a brass and glass cover, such as one from a World War II Liberty Ship for $3,475 (Antiques of the Sea; www. antiquesofthesea.com). A more realistic choice might be a box compass, which is a gimbaled wet or dry compass in a wooden case. This was often kept as a spare, and used in lifeboats in an emergency. A nice box compass from the late 1800s in a mahogany case is currently on the market for $950 (Cutty Sark Antiques; www.cuttyantiques.com).

Even more unusual is the “telltale compass,” which is an upside-down compass mounted to the overhead above the captain’s berth. This allowed him to glance up and check the course even when he was off watch, hence the “telltale” label. Woe betide any watch officer or helmsman who was caught wandering off course.

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Logs
Speed was important to a shipmaster, both for dead reckoning and for short-range navigation. By the late 1800s, the taffrail log was fairly common: a dial mounted on the stern attached by a long line to the torpedo-like log, which has fins to spin it at a carefully calculated rate. The log translates the number of spins into miles covered, with readings in nautical miles on dials of ones, tens, and hundreds. A simpler version was the Walker Harpoon, which put the calculator on the torpedo itself. At the end of each watch, the Harpoon would be pulled in, the distance read, recorded, and reset to zero, and the log tossed back for the next watch. These all-brass logs polish up to a high shine, and are a world apart from the LED speed readings given to modern skippers. Expect to pay $750 to $1,000 for a good Walker Harpoon log.

This only scratches the surface of nautical collectibles and we’ll have more features in the future. But for now, holding a piece of history in your hands and imagining the seafarers who have used it and passed it on is heady stuff. did they cross oceans and brave storms? did they carry cargos to faraway ports? who were they? what ships were they aboard?

It’s all hidden inside the world of nautical collectibles.

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