Monthly Archives: November 2010

History Lives in Auction Houses

30 November 2010

Auction houses display historic artifacts from the momumental to the mundane.  Spending time at auction is like being in a class room where everyone has come to participate.  You can learn much and often enjoy the simple emotion of amazement.  So many times I have seen things at auction that I dimly recall reading about.  Seeing a tangible object associated with an important person or event stirs the memory, engages the imagination and brings history to life.

I am not alone in the auction as history point of view.  Rosemary McKittrick writes about auctions at her website, Live Auction Talk.  She has been writing about art and antiques for over 20 years.  Her site archives over 800 articles covering a broad array of categories.   The depth of her experience and keen eye for the story behind the story shows clearly in her articles.  Typically they focus on a particular item that has come up for auction with a description of the historical personality who owned it.  Her research is very good and filled with educational nuggets of information.

Rosemary looks at auctions all over the world to find the story behind historic objects as they come up for sale at auction.    As she says:

“It could be Harry Houdini, Bob Dylan, Truman Capote, Amelia Earhart, Babe Ruth or William Randolph Hearst. I tell their stories through the handcuffs they’ve owned, books they’ve written, songs they’ve sung, planes they’ve flown, empires they’ve built and homeruns they’ve hit—all of which sold on the block.”

Her story on Baron Von Richthofen (The Red Baron) includes interesting details surrounding his untimely demise.  I’m a pilot and dedicated aviation history buff and had forgotten this story.  It’s nice to have it back in my memory bank.  One of his silver beakers commemorating a victory in aerial combat sold at auction for $28.000.

These articles contain some great research on auction prices realized.  Don’t pass up this kind of resource.  Rosemary gets it in one when she says, “When the bidding stops and the hammer falls, the value of an item is set. The buyer, not the seller, sets the price. This simple distinction cuts through all the chitchat about what art, antiques and collectibles are really worth.”

Go to Live Auction Talk and sign up for her free weekly subscription.  It includes an article on the 8 essentials of collections.  It will tell you exactly what needs to be at the forefront of your thinking every time you enter an auction house.  It’s brilliant stuff and lots of fun.

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Invisible Mending With Shellac Sticks

19 November 2010

You can pick up some real bargain furniture from a variety of sources: auction, estate sales, knocking on doors and being a pest or even cruising alley ways to see what people have left for the garbage man.  This can yield  some amazing pieces of trash which can be turned into something less trashy for profit.  Finding real Chippendale, Sheraton and early colonial furniture that will make millionaires get in line does not happen to the likes of me.  However, good solid American furniture classics from the late Victorian era onward are tucked away in basements, barns and sheds of all sorts.  It’s the old furniture that was in Granny’s parlor. Unloved and uncared for, when it sees the light of day it usually needs some help to make it pay for it’s keep in your little corner of the antique mall.

There are a lot of resources available to the restorer to deal with a host of issues.  Finishes on wood break down in time and ill treatment can leave a piece of furniture with dents, dings, gouges and other mechanically introduced impressions.  Sometimes they add to the look of age in way that adds value, especially in primitives.  Classier furniture may want to have some attention payed the bruising.  There are various ways to fill holes and cracks in wood.  All of them work best on a raw wood surface.  If you are stripping and staining you can effect a basically invisible repair with wood putty.  some old-timers have used a mixture of sawdust and glue.  That usually doesn’t work as the glue tends to reject new stains.

The king of hole fillers is the shellac stick.  This type of repair goes back to the day when shellac was the primary clear finish on most furniture.  A filler made from the same material as the finish is naturally compatible.  It can accept shellac coatings without making itself known.  The application of shellac sticks involves a heat source and a knife like applying tool. I used to use an electric burn in knife but you can also use a palette knife and an alcohol lamp. It takes a bit of practice and experience to get the right amount of shellac where it’s meant to go. To protect the surrounding finish from the heat of the knife there is a product called burn-in balm that does the trick.  Basic directions for application techniques can be found at Shellac.net.

Once you have the process dialed in it will become readily apparent how useful this method is.  A primary advantage is the wide range of color choices available for matching up to grain or existing stain color.  Behlen’s makes at least 21 shades including variations on maple, oak, mahogany, walnut, cherry, and pine. A seven inch stick costs about $4.00 and goes a long way.

The next time you bring home a furniture piece that needs a bit more care than a quick rubdown with Old English polish, remember the time-tested shellac stick.  With a little practice you can make defects disappear and keep a classic beauty from becoming firewood.

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Book Collecting Warms a Sailor’s Soul

2 November 2010

Old books are a lifesaver on the stormy seas of circumstance. This is especially true as the autumn mornings descend icily on sailors that are landlocked for the coming season.  It is time to seek comfort in book-lined anchorages where time is suspended like a boat in a gale hanging on the crest of a wave.  Somewhere beyond the multitude of whitecaps is a blue sky and a kinder wind.

There are various kinds of book collector.  The antiquarians are seeking the oldest and rarest volumes.  Speed readers tend to get through a volume and then pass it on to someone else.  I like to savor a book and will reread some if they are particularly useful, meaningful or well written.  Selling books is interesting because you can get an insight into a person by what they choose to read.

A niche market grows from niche interests.  If you are a stamp collector you will like selling stamps.  If you are a sports fan, sports memorabilia, autographs or trading cards are will suit you.  I am a sailor.  You can get an idea of the depth of my interest by looking at my other blog: Seaward Adventures.  Although I have always followed a broad array of interests sailing is the one that never wanes in my worldview.  Back in 1985 I spent a year of my spare time and a lot of money getting my private pilot’s license.  I have an interest in aviation that goes back to my childhood. My passions have been expensive ones and in deciding between boats and airplanes the winner has always been sailboats.

Books are at the foundation of all my interests and so it is with sailing.  They teach, entertain and encourage like loyal friends.  Thus, I have always been a collector of books on my favorite subject.  Life sent me in directions which have caused me to leave behind a large library of precious friends but I am making an effort to recover them.  In the world collecting few things are as ubiquitous as books.  The opportunity to find new treasures or replace old ones is everywhere.  There are used bookstores in every city.  Antique malls always have a loose selection of old books and often some very good dealers in printed matter.  Flea markets and estate sales teem with boxes of books to be had at dirt cheap prices.

There are many classic stories of the sea, from Moby Dick to Mutiny on the Bounty. Everybody knows these from school but the wider body of work is immense.  Fiction is just a part of the whole.  There is a vast array of real life accounts of voyages short and long.  There are instructional books on sailing, navigation, boat-building, seamanship,  pirates and more things naval than I care to contemplate.

Certain classics have been in print for many years.  Ashley Book of Knots is a big heavy book.  It is formatted in an encyclopedic style showing every conceivable way to use rope From the practical to the irrelevant.  If you are into marlinespike seamanship it’s an essential text.  When I settled into life in Washington state it was the first book in my new library.

Maritime history in our country has had no stronger preservationist than Howard I. Chapelle (1901–1975).  He roamed the country documenting and measuring traditional working craft that were disappearing from the waterways.  His books are part history and part studies in naval architecture.  I have been rummaging through these volumes since electronic cigarette brands I was a high school student hiding out in the library.  The Search for Speed Under Sail, The History of the American Sailing Navy, Boatbuilding: A Complete Handbook of Wooden Boat Construction, and American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development and Construction are essentials of which I am still missing two.  As money allows it will be easy enough to pick them up on ABE books.  Fortunately they had a long print run.

L. Francis Herreshoff (1890-1972) is one America’s premiere yacht designers.  He published several of my favorite books, The Common Sense of Yacht Design, Capt. Nat Herreshoff: The Wizard of Bristol, The Writings of L. Francis Herreshoff, Sensible Cruising Designs and An L. Francis Herreshoff Reader. The Compleat Cruiser: The Art, Practice, and Enjoyment of Boating is one of the most engaging and informative books on cruising under sail ever written.  Some would find the book to be very outdated but if you are paying attention you will learn more than you expected about anchoring, boat designs and simple navigation tricks. Such tricks might save your bacon when the GPS goes unexpectedly silent.  I will never understand why the same people who will deny the existence of a holy God will put blind faith in battery powered electronics in a salt water environment.

For the kind of entertainment that can only be had in the pages of fiction I have always preferred C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. These 11 novels tracing the career of a British naval officer during the great age of fighting sail ring with authenticity as well as drama.  I have read the whole series at least five times.  I also like to have a shelf full of Alexander Kent’s Richard Bolitho novels.  More ripping yarns from a British pen.  Many people like the more modern equivalent in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian but I have never quite warmed up to the characters.

A favorite part of the nautical book genre is books that review various sailboat designs or feature the work of a particular designer.  They are usually illustrated with photos and plans.  Prime examples are Good Boats, More Good Boats and Still More Good Boats by Roger C. Taylor.  It’s a little like motorheads who can tell you the make and year of any car you see on the road and can give you an opinion on it’s performance.  In my head is a catalog of boat designs built up over more than 40 years of absorbing everything I could about sailing vessels.  Wooden boats take precedence but I don’t discriminate against other materials. The best boat I have owned so far was fiberglass.

The best of vintage nautical books have either great engravings or maps bound in.  One of my other collecting passions has always been maps.  This goes hand in glove.  The art of navigation begets the art of topography.  I cannot see a detailed chart, old or new, without concluding that it springs from an artistic sensibility as well an applied science.  I give all the credit to God for creating both the canvas, the paint and the brush.

Nothing makes me feel more secure and at home than to be snuggled up among my books.  A chill is coming and the soul must have some fuel.  Literature can be a beacon to a sailor, even on dry land, as snow falls softly amid the ranks of sleeping hulls in the Wintry boatyard.

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