Very nice summer auction in a schnoozy little town on the South Shore. Along with scrimshaw, paintings, and assorted smalls, two whaling logs are on offer. One is accompanied by a portrait of the captain who wrote the log, and by a portrait of his daughter. Except, in typical auctioneer fashion, this attractive lot is broken down into three separate lots, with the captain’s portrait coming first, the daughter’s portrait second, and the log third.
I walk tree-lined main street of the little town, in the lovely summer-morning air, past quaint shoppes, water just off to my left, trying to figure out how to play this.
Obviously, I want the portrait and the log together. I’ve never had a logbook with a portrait of the guy who wrote it. The daughter, not so much. Her portrait might even reduce the attractiveness of this group to my prospective buyers – too many items. And why should they pay extra for the portrait of a little girl? She never killed any whales.
The question is, how much to pay? The rooms are full of high rollers, institutional reps, antique dealers, and folks decked out in Nantucket colors. Phones crackle with absentee buyers. The bidding could get away from me very quickly. I realize I must come up with a number and stick to it. Which I do. But wait! Should I go all in on the captain’s portrait and assume that I’ll get the log? What use is the picture without the book? Should I hold off on the portrait? Bid it low? The whole thing turns into a complicated scenario. Surely whoever buys the painting will be highly motivated to secure the whaling log. Or will they? What to do?
I return to the auction hall in a lather, then chat for the next hour with the expert lady beside me about samplers. portraits, log books, and museums, while the auctioneer – a stumpy, mustachioed fellow who thinks he’s much wittier than we find him – drones on.
Then, with the suddenness of fate, the captain’s portrait is being offered, soaring in an instant beyond my upraised card. I drop out at $3500 and it goes for a thousand more to a phone bidder. Then the daughter, poor thing, for peanuts to yet another phone bidder.
Then the log, on which I am the valiant underbidder at $6400, to someone at the front of the room, perhaps a representative of the institution to which I would have offered it if I’d gotten it.
Immediately on to the next lot, the second whaling log, which seems to have gotten lost in the excitement of the dispersal of father, daughter, and whaling log (Each to a different buyer. How stoopid is that?). This time, while everyone is looking at something else, I purchase the log for about what I thought I’d have to pay to get it.
And I am immediately consoled because it is more interesting than it had seemed at first blush – especially now that I own it. I flatter myself that I may be the only person in the auction room to have noticed a particular something interesting about the journal. Here’s how I described it:
Manuscript. “Journal of a Whaling Voyage to the Pacific Ocean on Board the Eliza L. B. Jenney. FairHaven, John Church Master, 1842.” Folio, 131 pages of manuscript entries. Pioneer oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury based much of his work on information gleaned from ship’s logs. There was a huge cache of them at the Navy’s Deport of Charts and Instruments where he formed his theories. He supplemented this knowledge by collecting pre-printed journals from ship captains and, supposedly, by transcribing information from journals of American whaling captains, who were by far the most traveled sailors on the planet. I’ve seen examples of the pre-printed journals, but I’ve never seen any evidence of Maury’s working with whaling journals… Until now.
Written twice on the front blanks of this journal are the words, “Copied for M. F. Maury.” Reading through the journal we can see why it was of use to Maury. Position and weather conditions are meticulously recorded, often with ocean condition noted as well. The “Eliza L. B. Jenney” was a 381 ton ship built in Fairhaven in 1842. This was her maiden voyage, and it was a successful one, returning 2400 sperm (More precisely, the tabulation at the back of this journal shows them returning 2491 bbl. It also notes the amount of oil each whale yielded, and where and when it was caught. This sort of information must have been especially valuable to Maury as he compiled his famous “Whale Chart” of 1851.) The journal keeper was probably Hiram Luther, 1st mate, who identifies himself by writing, on October 28, 1843, “This day I am 38 years of age. May the lord in mercy preserve me through this voyage and return me to my native home.” Aside from the Maury connection this journal also has the advantage of being accompanied by scholarly notes, genealogy, and a complete transcription made in 2003. The journal keeper will occasionally skip a day, but this is a complete journal of a four-year whaling cruise on the west coast of South America. Maury’s “Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic” was published in 1847, and “Physical Geography of the Sea” in 1855. So the journal fits well within that time frame. The writing is something of a scrawl, but is legible, and the book is in excellent condition, securely bound in original half calf over marbled boards with “Journal Whaling Voyage” in gold lettering on the backstrip. $5000