Sugar cane and whale ivory cane, Nantucket, circa 1825

In 2005, I purchased an early Nantucket whale ivory bird form cane that was initially on auction through Sotheby’s in the early 1980’s.  After corresponding with the seller, Angelo Defalco, a well known and respected scrimshaw dealer, I decided to purchase this beautiful bird form cane.  What I failed to do at the time was nail down actual provenance outside of an e-mail trail.

Fast forward 17 years, I recently decided to track back in search of a picture or catalogue entry for my bird cane in hopes of obtaining greater attribution.

In my initial e-mail correspondence with Ang, he shared the following about the bird cane:

The bird form cane with the cane wood shaft is from the Barbara Johnson collection. If you don’t have her catalogs from the 1980’s sales at Sotheby’s, they are one of the best references of all types of scrimshaw. The bird cane is a very early Nantucket cane. The shaft is cane and the bird form is whale tooth. People knew about this cane for a long time and when it came up at auction, a friend of mine bought it. He is a very knowledgeable collector who is mentioned in most books on scrimshaw and is widely known to be an expert. He kept the cane for about ten years and recently sold it to me. It is undoubtedly a whale man’s work. I guarantee it is an original 19th century cane. Actually when the Barbara Johnson cane was sold on Nantucket, the write up listed it as her oldest cane. She estimated the age at 1820. It is obvious from the wear on the bird (you can only see the abstract form of the bird from all the handling over the years).

Barbara Johnson was the heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune. She started collecting scrimshaw in the sixties and she is one of the few woman collectors, so you’re in a special group. Her collection was sold in four parts in the eighties by Sotheby’s Auction House.  The catalogues plus the remainder of her collection was sold at Rafael Osona Auctions in the late eighties and make up the Barbara Johnson catalogues. She had probably the finest collection of scrim by any one person, including canes. I met her and corresponded with her about pieces in my collection and she was always very nice to me as a beginning collector.  Great old piece. 

I don’t have the write up, but the info I have is from Ed Stecewicz, one of the most respected researchers in the whaling field. I’ll try to get him to write up what he remembers about it. The length is 32” in. long and the handle is 5 in. wide and as I said the bird form is almost abstract with wear.

From: Ed Stecewicz
To:  Angelo Defalco
Subject:  Bird Cane

The whale ivory bird cane I initially saw on exhibit at Sotheby’s Barbara
Johnson whaling auctions in the early 1980’s.  It was “bought in” at the
higher reserve price.  It had the same reserve at the Osona auction in
Nantucket plus the premium plus mailing expense.   I purchased this simple but rare cane because I believed it to be an early Nantucket artifact.

I don’t believe this was ever on exhibit. Barbara still had a
considerable cane collection when Bill Dinges and I visited her in 1995.

I attended Barbara Johnson’s whaling exhibit at the Brandywine Museum in 1989 and another exquisite bird cane was there. This was a more high end piece which was also pictured in folk art books such as “Animal Motifs in American Folk Art”  published over ten years ago.

I contacted both Sotheby’s Auction House and Rafael Osona Auctions and much to my surprise, received a response from both in short order.

Because the cane was offered first through Sotheby’s, Rafael Osana suggested that I first contact Sotheby’s, which I did.  I received an almost immediate response from Benjamin at Sotheby’s, who offered the following:

I was able to search through the Barbara Johnson catalogues and discovered that your cane was offered in the fourth volume (12/16-12/17/1983) of the collection as Lot #620.  It was described then as the following:

SUGAR CANE AND WHALE IVORY CANE, Nantucket, circa 1825
The whale ivory handle carved in the form of a nesting dove, fitted on a sugar cane shaft with an eyelet shimmed with old twine and tapering gradually to a rough iron finial fitted as a cuff.
Length 32 ½ inches (83 cm).

Found on Nantucket and typical of early Nantucket work, much used through the years.  One of the very few sticks with a cane shaft and a rare example of scrimshaw carving at the outset of the tradition.

I was able to locate a copy of Barbara Johnson’s Whaling Collection-Part IV, and have completed my search for provenance on this amazing bird form whale ivory cane from Nantucket, circa 1825.



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