Annual Maritime and China Trade Auction

RJG Antiques Pigeons

"They are very rare," said Rye, New Hampshire, dealer Russ Goldberger of RJG Antiques. He was the underbidder on this pair of 11 1/4" long Mason passenger pigeon decoys, incorrectly identified in the catalog as doves. Goldberger pointed out that passenger pigeons became extinct in 1915, which meant the pair was an early Mason product. "They were heavily gunned, which led to their extinction," he noted. The pair appears in Goldberger's book Mason Decoys: A Complete Pictorial Guide -- coauthored by Alan Haid -- where they are dated as circa 1895. A phone bidder picked up the pair for $69,600, well above the $10,000/15,000 estimate. They had glass eyes. One had an iron bill; the other bill was wooden. Goldberger noted that the earliest Mason shorebirds had wooden bills. They were replaced with iron bills about 1900 or so because the wooden bills kept breaking.

RJG Antiques Drakes

This pair of carved bluebill drakes, probably New Jersey, was expected to bring $300/500 but instead went to a phone bidder for $13,200, underbid by another phone. Russ Goldberger, who bid on the lot, wrote in an e-mail: "I believe they were made by Rollie Horner of West Creek, New Jersey, ca. 1930's. Horner is regarded as one of the best coastal New Jersey decoy makers. This hollow pair appeared to be in original paint (with some glue added to one along its seam to prevent leakage). While I chased them to what I thought was an aggressive price, I was not the underbidder, so several others also recognized them."

"It's going to a great home," said Bourgeault after knocking down the painted silk 16" x 14" mourning escutcheon (hatchment) that was part of the elaborate funeral of Thomas Hancock in August 1764. It had descended in the Hancock family, spending years folded up and in a closet before being mounted. The shield is divided vertically with Hancock arms on the left and the arms of the Henchman family on the right. (Hancock was married to Lydia Henchman Hancock.) The Hancock arms have a black background, signifying his death, and the Henchman arms with white background indicate Lydia's survival. Even though it was terrifically rare, it struggled in the bidding, bringing only $10,800, way under the $20,000/30,000

RJG Antiques Letter Jefferson

It was all phone bidding for this one-page letter written and signed by Thomas Jefferson, as vice-president elect, on January 22, 1797. The 8¾" x 7¼" letter discussed Jefferson's thoughts on losing the election to John Adams. "I have been secondary to him in every situation in which we ever acted together in public life…" and "in truth I wish for neither honors nor offices. I am happier at home than I can be elsewhere." The winner paid $79,200. The letter is well known, and its contents have been published widely.

Clayton Pennington, August 17, 2013
Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Photos courtesy Northeast Auctions

Boston merchant Thomas Hancock collapsed entering the Massachusetts State House on August 1, 1764, and died hours later. "His funeral was celebrated with great pomp," wrote W.T. Baxter in the 1965 book The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724-1775. Hancock's extravagant English funereal pomp, however, marked a turning point in the Colonies. Baxter notes it was the last time at "which the old extremes of mourning were observed." Soon tensions with Britain would lead Colonial residents to eschew the grand traditions of England, opting for simpler ways to mourn.

One of the English traditions -- producing a mourning escutcheon, called a hatchment -- was observed at Hancock's funeral and mourning period. Painted or embroidered escutcheons were hung on or over the front door of the family of the deceased, according to David Watters in the 1983 journal of the Association of Gravestone Studies.

Hancock's square-shaped escutcheon featured a shield divided vertically with the Hancock arms on the left and the arms of the Henchman family on the right. (Hancock was married to Lydia Henchman Hancock.) The Hancock arms have a black background, signifying his death, but the Henchman arms have a white background, indicating Lydia Hancock's survival.

The escutcheon, a painted 16" x 14" piece of silk, descended in the Hancock family and was for a long time folded up and kept in a closet. Now framed, it was sent to auction by the family and sold for $10,800 (includes buyer's premium) at Northeast Auctions' annual marine, China trade, and Americana sale, held on August 17 and 18 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The bidder on the telephone faced almost no competition. After knocking it down, auctioneer Ron Bourgeault announced, "It's going to a great home."

The escutcheon wasn't the only Hancock family lot. A portrait of John Hancock, after the portrait by John Singleton Copley, sold for $16,800 to a phone bidder, under the $30,000/50,000 estimate, and an English Chippendale mahogany writing table, made to John Hancock's specifications and sold together with the Hancock family Bible, brought $6000, also under estimate, missing the $10,000/20,000 mark. The same buyer got them both.

The Hancock objects weren't the only ones with ties to the fledgling United States of America. Maine broker Seth Thayer, bidding for clients, bought several of the Revolutionary War papers of Captain Dudley Saltonstall (1738-1796), the naval officer who presided over the Penobscot Expedition, the largest amphibious operation of the Revolutionary War and a crushing loss for the American forces.

In July of 1779, Saltonstall headed an expedition of warships, transport ships, and more than 1000 militiamen to try to retake a 750-man British garrison in what is now Castine, Maine. It was no contest; the British routed the Americans, and Saltonstall took the brunt of the blame; he was court-martialed in September of the same year.

A map drawn by Joseph Chadwick on July 9, 1779, "A sketch of a part of Penobscot," made in preparation for the Penobscot Expedition, was Thayer's for $38,400, underbid by dealer James Kochan of Frederick, Maryland. The next lot, a hand-drawn map of the American forces after their first encounter with the British during the battle, was also a victory for Thayer, who paid $50,400 and was underbid this time by a phone bidder. Thayer paid $17,400 for Saltonstall's court martial papers. Thayer confirmed that the buyer of the Saltonstall maps was the Castine (Maine) Historical Society and the buyer of the papers was the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine.

This was the 20th year Northeast Auctions has mounted a mid-August sale featuring nautical antiques and objects of the China trade. The sales have been a success ever since they began. The first, held in 1994, featured 872 lots and grossed just over $2 million, at that time the highest-grossing auction ever in Portsmouth. The sale totals have climbed higher over the past 20 years, peaking in 2008 when the J. Welles Henderson collection brought in $7.924 million. This year, the two-day sale totaled $4.14 million, topping last year's total of $4.07 million.

Bourgeault said, "The market is alive and well for maritime, China trade, and historical Americana. American furniture is another story." Luckily he had very little American furniture in the sale. Instead it was anchored by some very good scrimshaw, marine paintings -- many from the collection of the India House in New York City and published in The Marine Collection at India House -- and Chinese export porcelain.

"The India House collection performed beautifully," Bourgeault said, noting that the pictures had been off the market for 60 to 80 years. "We worked on realistic estimates, and all but one Jacobsen sold. And they were bought by people who aren't just 'ship' people," he added.

The India House, founded in 1914, is in the process of making changes to the clubhouse and deaccessioning some of the art. Bourgeault said, "The India House collection has been whittled down -- they are keeping some, but it is time for a new look," referring to the old-fashioned club that once was populated by magnates in shipping and marine insurance. The consignment of 35 paintings sold for $610,080; the highest-selling lot of the India House collection was William Bradford's 24" x 36" oil on canvas of the clipper ship Bonita, which sold for $60,000 to a phone bidder.

For more information, contact Northeast Auctions at (603) 433-8400 or visit the Web site at (

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. ©2013 Maine Antique Digest

RJG Antiques Cabinet

"I've known about this cabinet for forty-five years," Ron Bourgeault said before selling the mahogany collector's cabinet with three shelves, two drawers, and scrimshawed whale ivory including an eagle with a shield and mother-of-pearl inlay. Estimated at $30,000/50,000, it sold to a phone bidder for $55,200. It was once in the collection of maritime collector Francis Bacon Lothrop, whose collection is housed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and is chronicled in the 1987 books Whaling Prints in the Francis B. Lothrop Collection. Pennington photos.

RJG Antiques Billet

Because of the crosshatching on the back, Northeast Auctions attributed the carved and painted billet head to John Haley Bellamy. Standing 15½" high and 18" long, it sold for $10,200 (est. $1500/2500) to a phone bidder on the line with Northeast's Frank Coolidge.

RJG Antiques Diaries

Dealer James Kochan of Frederick, Maryland, paid $11,400, way over the $500/800 estimate, for three diaries by Massachusetts native Moses Stacy covering the years 1776-78. Kochan said his research indicated the diaries were unpublished. Stacy served on the schooner Hawk, was taken prisoner by the British, and spent time in Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. "I thought the diary was phenomenal; I was prepared to bid much more," Kochan said.

RJG Antiques Hemingway

Estimated at $1500/2500, the manuscript by Ernest Hemingway for "Cuban Fishing" brought $18,000 from Manchester, New Hampshire, dealer Richard Thorner of Resser-Thorner Antiques. "I think the auction price was fair," said Thorner. The double-spaced typed nine-page manuscript was dated March 30, 1948. The lot included typed correspondence including two autograph-signed letters by "Papa" Hemingway and a copy of Game Fish of the World, published in 1949, in which "Cuban Fishing" first appeared.

RJG Antiques Clipper

There was stiff competition for this 24" x 36" oil on canvas portrait of the Esmeralda, executed by British/Massachusetts artist Duncan McFarlane (1818-1865). A private collector in house was the ultimate winner, paying $36,000, more than double the $15,000 high estimate. The Esmeralda was built in Brunswick, Maine, in 1849.

RJG Antiques Clipper

The clipper ship Bonita by William Bradford (1823-1892), 24" x 36", oil on canvas, ex-India House, sold to a phone bidder for $60,000.