A Historic Piece of Scrimshaw Comes Home

A detail reading "Sag Harbor" on a scrimshaw from 1817.
A scrimshaw on a Sawfish beak from 1817, courtesy of Black Swan Antiques of Sag Harbor.
A scrimshaw on a swordfish bill from 1817, courtesy of Black Swan Antiques of Sag Harbor. Michael Heller photos
A detail reading "Sag Harbor" on a scrimshaw from 1817.
A detail reading “Sag Harbor” on a scrimshaw from 1817.

By Annette Hinkle

Another piece of Sag Harbor’s whaling history has found its way home, and it’s currently living in a glass case at Black Swan Antiques on Main Street.

This time, it’s a piece of scrimshaw — a massive swordfish bill carved with imagery dating to 1817 — related to the Argonaut, a whaling ship out of Sag Harbor. Decorated extensively with sea-themed imagery, the etchings include an anchor and rope, a rendering of the ship with the words “SHIP • ARGONAUT • SAG HARB.” etched in a banner above it, a bowhead whale with its Latin name, “Balaena mysticetus,” spelled below, an eagle clutching arrows in its talons with an “E Pluribus Unum” banner below, and another “Ship Argonaut Sag Harbor” banner held in its beak, and finally, the words “Sag Harbor 1817.”

“I’m definitely thrilled and I appreciate the reaction I get from those who come in the store and understand the historical significance,” says Black Swan’s owner, Randy Kolhoff. “The people who do get it just love it.”

Mr. Kolhoff is a history buff and he stumbled upon the piece quite by accident last month at the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts. Brimfield is the largest antique show on the East Coast — a massive, five-day event with thousands of dealers and various markets that open throughout the week. “Brimfield’s Heart-O-the-Mart” market opened at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, May 11 and Mr. Kolhoff was there at 8:15 a.m. so he could secure a spot at the front of the pack of people waiting for the gates to open.

A detail reading "E Plurbus Unium."
A detail reading “Ship Argonaut Sag Harbor”.

“There were maybe 300 to 400 dealers there, and it’s in a big field,” explains Mr. Kolhoff. “As usual, I was looking for furniture that’s conducive to my style. A statue caught my eye 15 minutes after the gates open. I went in to ask for a price — the guy was engaged in something else — I looked down and saw it in a glass case.”

“I asked and negotiated a price,” he continues. “Someone on the phone was also interested in it, but had to make a phone call to get permission to purchase it. I said ‘I’ll take it right now for cash.’ I was so excited, I literally scooped it up. I sat and looked at it for 15 minutes when I should have been searching for more things.”

Mr. Kolhoff isn’t divulging exactly how much he paid for the piece, but later, he learned from the seller that the swordfish scrimshaw had come from an estate sale in Cape Cod. That makes sense, he explains, because after whaling ended in Sag Harbor, it continued for a while longer in New Bedford and other New England towns. As a result, many whaling families left Sag Harbor and moved to Massachusetts, taking their memorabilia with them.

“This is my 13th year as a professional buyer, buying at outdoor markets all around the country,” says Mr. Kolhoff, who opened Black Swan Antiques 10 years ago (the store was initially based in Southampton before moving to Bridgehampton and finally, Sag Harbor). “I’ve never seen anything like it — a real piece of scrimshaw that wasn’t a reproduction.”

A detail of the Argonaut on a scrimshaw from 1817.

This is not the first piece of Argonaut history that has found its way back to Sag Harbor in recent months. Readers may remember that in January, reporter Doug Feiden wrote in the Express about an 1823 whaling logbook from the ship that was sent anonymously to the Sag Harbor Historical Society last fall.

This swordfish bill scrimshaw predates the log book by six years, and it references the 1817 trip of the Argonaut under command of Eliphalet Halsey, a significant voyage in that it represented the first time a Long Island whaler rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South America.

“In 1817, we find the good ship Argonaut of Sag Harbor venturing around Cape Horn into the Pacific and bringing home 1,700 barrels of sperm whale oil from a voyage of twenty months,” reads a passage written by Mrs. Edward P. White, circa 1932. “This gallant ship under Capt. Eliphalet Halsey had made as fair a voyage as that of Jason when in the older day he sailed in the Argo to find the golden fleece, for whale oil came to be the ‘golden fleece’ that made the golden years for Sag Harbor and all of eastern Long Island.”

The details of the Argonaut’s career are also documented in the index of the 1991 book “Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty,” by local historian Dorothy Ingersoll Zaykowski. She writes of the ship, “Joined the fleet in 1814. Made nine voyages. Captains: Isaac Sayre, Eliphalet Halsey, Uriah Sayre, William Jones, Absalom Griffing and Oliver Fowler. Condemned at Sag Harbor in 1834.”

A detail...
More details from the scrimshaw currently being held at Black Swan Antiques in Sag Harbor.

One question remains, however. Now that the scrimshaw is safely back in Sag Harbor, what happens next? Mr. Kolhoff admits he is already entertaining potential buyers, though with a few caveats.

“I would like it to go to a museum, but there could be a collector who would pay for it as well,” he says. “I’m not ready to part with it until I have a list of people interested. There’s a historic significance and it is important to me who ends up with it. Next year that piece will be 200 years old. I don’t have any problem keeping it.”

“It’s here. I enjoy having it and I’m not in a hurry to sell it,” adds Mr. Kolhoff. “By all means it can stay here for a while. I’m the caretaker for now.”

“I’m happy it came back to Sag Harbor Village. It’s a great piece of history.”