A Piece of History Returns to Sag Harbor

The 1796 powder horn. A. Hinkle photo.
The 1796 powder horn. A. Hinkle photo.

By Annette Hinkle

It’s not every day that a piece of historic Sag Harbor finds its way back home.

But that’s exactly what’s happened in recent weeks at the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum.

It all started back in early fall when museum manager Greg Therriault and collections manager Richard Doctorow were approached by a private collector from North Carolina who had a powder horn which he purchased at an antiques show a few years ago.

The horn, which was used to store gun powder while hunting, dated to the late 18th century and it was etched with images of ships, animals and text reading: “Sagg Harbor Feb 10th 1796 • Stratten Conkling • his horn made by himself.”

The collector was looking to sell the horn and because it was so Sag Harbor specific, he wanted to give the museum the first shot at acquisition. So he contacted the museum to see if they might be interested.

“We were,” admits Mr. Doctorow.

With no money up front, the collector agreed to send the horn to the museum for appraisal. It was around that time that Greg Fukutomi and Phoebe Barnard, museum members and part time Sag Harbor residents, stopped by the museum with friends Stephen and Karen Clark who were visiting from California.

“We love the Whaling Museum and we try to visit as much as possible when we have guests,” explains Ms. Barnard.

Both couples have great interest and experience in the arts, and when Mr. Fukutomi and Ms. Barnard introduced the Clarks to Mr. Therriault, Ms. Clark mentioned how impressed she was with the museum’s collection — especially the scrimshaw.

“I said, ‘You seem knowledgeable about whaling artifacts,’” recalls Mr. Therriault.

She certainly was.

In a strange bit of kismet, it turns out that Ms. Clark once worked at Sotheby’s Auction House where her specialty was Americana and maritime artifacts — specifically powder horns.

That’s when Mr. Therriault asked if the two couples would like to see the powder horn being considered for acquisition by the museum.

“They said, ‘We’d be thrilled to see it,’” he adds.

Upon examining the powder horn, Ms. Clark noted that while whale teeth and bone are almost always etched with nautical scenes, powder horns are typically decorated with hunting imagery.

“Rarely do they have nautical motifs,’” says Mr. Therriault. “That’s what makes this one very, very special.”

The asking price was $3,500 and though the horn still needed to be authenticated, Mr. Therriault recalls that Ms. Clark said it was the real thing and an object that should definitely be in the museum’s collection.

“A piece of Americana that has a history that is Sag Harbor specific — we all got very excited,” explains Mr. Fukutomi. “We were all gawking at it and thought it was beautiful — and we spent a long time afterwards talking about it. Karen got excited about the piece and about this museum and helping out …and we pledged to cover the rest.”

Which is the story of how the two couples came together to purchase the horn which is now in the permanent collection of the Whaling Museum.

“Afterwards, when we were talking with Stephen and Karen, we said what was wonderful is if you give to a big institution, the impact of your gift is not felt so much,” says Ms. Barnard “But with something like the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, it means so much more.”

As the museum’s collection manager, Mr. Doctorow is very excited to have this piece of Sag Harbor history back in Sag Harbor where it belongs.

“That alone makes it wonderful for the museum and the community,” he says.

The newly acquired powder horn was on full display last Friday evening during the Whaling Museum’s annual holiday party. It now falls to Mr. Doctorow to begin the digging process to see what information he can turn up about the meaning behind the etchings on the horn.

“There’s lot’s of flora and fauna, fishes, a stag, herons,” explains Mr. Doctorow as he points out the images on the horn. “Despite there being six ships, none of them are whaling ships.”

Among the ships depicted on the horn is one named Elisa. Mr. Doctorow notes that he knows of no Sag Harbor ship with that name, though he still has plenty of research to do on the piece.

“This comes from an interesting time — 1796. It was either the start or end of a quasi war with the French,” explains Mr. Doctorow. “It’s one of those forgotten wars, that’s the interest for me. Was Elisa a warship off of Montauk? That’s where you have to start digging through history.”

Then there’s the question of the maker himself.

“Who was Stratten Conkling, what was the Elisa and what was going on in 1796?” he asks. “With anything historical, you begin with one idea and then find yourself on a different path.”