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Sperm Whale Tooth with Image of Confederate Commerce Raider CSS Alabama


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501.     [SCRIMSHAW]. CSS ALABAMA. Sperm whale tooth scrimshaw showing the Confederate raider. N.d. [after 1894 to early twentieth century]. Length: 7 inches; 17.8 cm. Base: 1-3/4 inches; 4.7 cm. Front: Port or left facing portrait under sail and steam of the Alabama over an identifying legend inscribed “The Alabama.” Reverse: Blank. Minor 3-1/2 inch (9 cm) age crack on the top edge extending from a “V” shaped crack at the base towards the center (not affecting the design or decoration of the tooth). Expected toning and extraneous staining. There are faint traces of a possible obliterated letter to the right of the legend. Very good with sharp contrast and a somewhat waxy patina. Authenticated by Stuart M. Frank, Ph.D., Senior Curator, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts, Director, Scrimshaw Forensics® Laboratory, Director Emeritus, Kendall Whaling Museum. Research by Andrew Jacobson, Marine Antiques, Ipswich, Massachusetts.

     The workmanship on the tooth is primitive, indicating an amateur artist or possibly a sailor. It was probably done with a knife using straight lines and a stipple-like combination of small triangles and dots. The proportions of the image are without distortion, despite the curvature of the tooth. Both gun ports are plainly visible, as is the flag with the standard in the upper left corner flying from the mizzen mast. The stipple work is quite evident on the “The Alabama” legend. The hull and standing rigging are outlined in the stipple format. Wide and non-parallel knife blade lines occur on the hull planking and in the sails. While old, the work on this tooth does not seem to be of Civil War vintage.

     Although patriotic images are plentiful, images of Confederate vessels on scrimshaw are uncommon. As the targets of Confederate commerce raiders, whale men would not be inclined to memorialize the predators. The most common Civil War naval scene is that of the Monitor and the Merrimac. However, virtually none were done during the war years. The vast majority are creations of the mid- to late- twentieth century.

     In 1862, Liverpool port painter, Samuel Walters painted “The Alabama” under way off Cork, with Roches Point and a lighthouse to the left. The painting is in the collection of the Merseyside Maritime Museum at Liverpool. There are several variant versions in existence. In 1894, American artist Clary Ray did a sepia wash drawing of the Alabama for the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion, published in 27 volumes 1894-1922. The Alabama portrait is included in Vol. I, pp. 770, published in 1894. The Clary original is in the U.S. Navy Art Collection in Washington. It appears that Walters’ portrait was the source for Ray’s image. Upon close examination, it seems that Ray’s illustration is the source for this tooth. The sail configuration, along with virtually all of the vessel’s details and the water, correspond almost exactly to Ray’s image, which was simplified from Walter’s original.

     This information would indicate that the work on the tooth could not predate 1894. The tonality and calligraphy of the legend also tend to reflect a late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century sensibility and origin.

     The CSS Alabama, built in England in 1862 and secretly transferred to the Confederates supposedly as a merchant ship, was quickly armed and commissioned by Mexican-American War veteran Captain Raphael Semmes. She commenced a raiding career that spanned the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. She was finally bottled up in 1864 by the USS Kearsarge in Cherbourg, France, where she had put in for repairs. Despite being in some disrepair, she sallied, and when the hour-long engagement was over, the Alabama went to the bottom, although Semmes and some of the crew escaped capture. During her career, she sank sixty-two ships and profoundly disturbed Yankee sea commerce.

     The present artifact is a desirable example of an unusual form of indigenous American folk art, about which Walter K. Earle comments: “[Scrimshaw] is extraordinary in a number of aspects. The first of these is the extraordinary set of facts that a folk art of national scope could be and was created and practiced on the ocean, many miles from land, and only by sailors engaged in whaling, and by practically every one of them…. It was not until many years after whaling had come to its end that scrimshaw was recognized in its own right” (Scrimshaw: Folk Art of the Whalers, Cold Spring Harbor: Whaling Museum Society, 1957, pp. i-ii). See also Norman Flayderman, Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders (New Milford: Flayderman, 1972); and Richard C. Malley, Graven by the Fishermen Themselves: Scrimshaw at Mystic Seaport (Mystic: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1983). Although no CITES certificate is required for this item, it cannot be delivered outside the state of Texas. For further explanation, please contact us.


Sold. Hammer: $1,100.00; Price Realized: $1,320.00

Auction 22 Abstracts

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