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AROUND HOME : Notes on Nautical Antiques and Pottery : Nautical Antiques

December 18, 1988|SAM BURCHELL

NAUTICAL ANTIQUES call to mind visions of pirate ships of the Spanish Main, whalers from Nantucket, fast China clippers, sailing ships gliding through the waters beyond the San Francisco Bay or bearing down upon the Pool of London.

Popular nautical antiques include steering wheels, port and starboard lanterns, steamship gauges, telegraphs used to signal instructions from the bridge to the engine room, compasses, hatch covers, binnacles, wooden water casks and ships' bells--among much else. Well-constructed and solid, they were carefully designed for the hard life of the ocean voyage.

Before the 1940s, almost nothing from old ships was saved. Little survives from the days of sail and hardly anything at all exists from before the late 18th Century--except in museums. Ships that were not wrecked were stripped of everything portable when they were retired, although the last captain often kept the binnacle.

Collectible material, much of it made of brass, ranges from portholes, bells and cannon to boatswain's whistles, belaying pins and deadeyes (fittings that attach shrouds to the hull). Also well worth collecting are samples of scrimshaw art, as well as intricate models of sailing ships and ocean liners. Or consider an 18th-Century sea chest bearing a painting of mermaids and a full-rigged vessel on the inside cover.

Perhaps the most valuable nautical collectibles are those navigational and weather instruments made before the mid-19th Century: compasses, for example, astrolabes, quadrants, sextants, chronometers. Much in demand are early sextants, instruments that show the position of a heavenly body above the horizon. Interpreted along with the correct time from a chronometer and data from navigational tables, the sextant makes it possible to calculate a ship's position with accuracy.

Nautical furniture and accessories--from desks and captain's chairs to sea-going decanters and porcelain for the officers' mess--also makes an excellent theme for a collection because almost all such pieces are handsome and well proportioned. Furniture, in particular, is beautifully made, with the finest wood and sunken brass handles. Romantic they may be, but there is, too, a welcome and comfortable solidity about most ship's artifacts.

Nautical antiques can be found at Millstein's General Store in West Los Angeles, Pasadena Antique Center in Pasadena, Dana Book & Navigation Co. in Dana Point, Minney's Yacht Surplus in Newport Beach, Antiques & Nautical in Newport Beach, Maidof Brothers in Coronado, and West Sea Co. in San Diego.

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