Scrimshaw Weekend, May 17-19

Crimper with serpent motif made of sperm whale ivory, ca. 1840s-50s, New Bedford Whaling Museum. (Photo: Richard Donnelly)

Crimper with serpent motif made of sperm whale ivory, circa 1840s-50s, New Bedford Whaling Museum.
(Photo: Richard Donnelly)

The 24th annual Scrimshaw Weekend takes place May 17, 18, and 19. This year’s special events are a classic swap meet and Nautical Antiques Show on Friday afternoon, and an optional fieldtrip “behind the scenes” to Mystic Seaport on the Sunday. Between times, sessions held all day on Saturday will feature illustrated presentations on the origins and history of scrimshaw, the identification and connoisseurship of masterworks, tips on collecting, and research on prices and market trends, all provided by experts gathered from across the nation — followed by a cash bar reception, gala banquet, and evening program.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the scrimshaw capital of the world, and the annual Scrimshaw Weekend is the world’s only forum devoted to the indigenous shipboard occupational art of whalers in the Age of Sail. Founded in 1989, the gala event attracts collectors, curators, folk art enthusiasts, amateur historians, antiques dealers, and others from coast to coast, who gather to share their enjoyment of this distinctive and beautiful art form.

This year’s program is particularly compelling. It turns out that some of the works hitherto attributed to the most famous of all whaleman artists, Edward Burdett of Nantucket, may actually have been produced by someone else — and an Englishman at that. So like some of the great works previously thought to have been painted by Rembrandt, some scrimshaw attributions have now become controversial. Collector and scrimshaw historian Judge Paul Vardeman of Kansas City, Mo., will produce the evidence and make the surprising case for “The Two Burdetts: New Perspectives on the Genesis of Pictorial Scrimshaw.”

In altogether different kinds of surveys, antiques sleuth Richard Donnelly of Barrington, R.I., will reveal the hitherto hidden identity of the great so-called Mechanic Artisan; scrimshaw artist Ryan Cooper of Yarmouth, on Cape Cod, will speak about “The Tabua Gift of a Fiji Chief in the 1830s,” back-to-back with “Tabua and Palaoa: Royal Scrimshaw Collectors in Nineteenth-Century Polynesia” by Dr. Mary Malloy of the Sea Education Association and Harvard University.

Fred Calabretta of Mystic Seaport will address the scrimshaw of George Comer, a celebrated New Bedford whaling captain who was trained in field-collecting techniques by Franz Boas, collected artifacts for natural history museums, and lived among the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic.

There will also be reports on new insights into the lives, careers, and productions of other notable scrimshaw artists, the annual Market Report by Andrew Jacobson of Ipswich, Mass., the ad hoc exhibition of scrimshaw consigned to auction later in 2013, and the launch of a new book entitled Scrimshaw and Provenance, capped off by a profusely illustrated presentation of “Scrimshaw Treasures at Mystic Seaport” by Dr. Stuart M. Frank, Senior Curator Emeritus of the Whaling Museum, author of Ingenious Contrivances, Curiously Carved, and host of the weekend event since 1989.

The Sunday fieldtrip will be hosted by Dr. Frank, together with scrimshaw historian Michael Gerstein and Paul O’Pecko of Mystic Seaport.

“This is one of my all-time favorite events at the Museum,” Stuart Frank commented. “The folks who attend are so interested, so companionable, and so welcoming of newcomers — with a big meal and lots of merriment in the middle — that it sometimes seems like what an ideal family Thanksgiving is supposed to be. It’s great fun and I always learn a lot.” The people seem to agree: participation is truly national, and in recent years friends made at the Scrimshaw Weekend have been exchanging off-season visits to one another in New England, California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and elsewhere.

The fourth annual Nautical Antiques Show kicks off the weekend’s activities on Friday, May 17, from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. featuring for sale high quality marine antiques including scrimshaw, nautical instruments and tools, whaling logbooks, ship models, photos, paintings, prints, New Bedford memorabilia, and more in the Jacobs Family Gallery. Admission to the Nautical Antiques Show is included in Scrimshaw Weekend tuition; $5 for the general public, or free with museum admission or membership.

Scrimshaw Weekend tuition for the Friday and Saturday sessions, including Nautical Antiques Show, buffet lunch, sumptuous Saturday evening dinner & program, and admission to all open galleries & exhibitions at the Museum is $335 ($370 after May 1); $295 for Museum members ($330 after May 1). Tickets to Saturday’s banquet only may be purchased for $75 each. Call to reserve seats for the optional fieldtrip to Mystic on Sunday, May 19.

For more information or to register, please contact visitor services at (508) 997-0046, ext. 100 or email:

Special hotel room rates are available for Scrimshaw Weekend attendees. Call for details: Fairfield Inn and Suites New Bedford by Marriott, 185 MacArthur Drive, New Bedford, MA 02740 (Tel. 774.634.2000), and Hampton Inn New Bedford/Fairhaven, 1 Hampton Way, Fairhaven, MA 02719 (Tel. 508.990.8500).

Full scholarships are available to university-level students, courtesy of Ronald Bourgeault and Northeast Auctions of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The New Bedford Whaling Museum is grateful to Northeast Auctions and the Maine Antique Digest for their generous support of what promises to be another great event.

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