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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Barometers, Globes, Figureheads

( Orginally published 1962 )



People who normally lead a humdrum existence seem to go wild when confronted with any memento of the days when men went down to the sea in ships and sailed to lands that were still wild and unknown.

Businessmen who look upon their latest "big deals" as an everyday occurrence worth only another twinge from their ulcer become excited at the thought of an ancient globe or antique barometer. For when they buy these things they bring into their modern-day world a small breath of a life that, while it can never come again, will at least never be forgotten.

They clutch at antique barometers, and price, it seems, is no object, if the barometer is rare enough and fine enough. It does not even matter, it seems, whether or not the barometer ever actually went to sea. Sometimes a fine specimen made by a famous furniture designer is worth a great deal even if it never left the shore, like the eighteenth-century barometer which was recently appraised at over $800.

Antique globes can also bring a gleam to the collector's eye. Some of these date as early as the fourteen hundreds. The oldest globe that we have today is one which was made in 1492. It could be that you will be the treasure hunter lucky enough to find a globe made even earlier than this. Or perhaps a globe similar to the Lenox globe, which is today in the New York Public Library. It is one of the earliest known examples to show both hemispheres, and, while this is important in determining its value, the information contained on a globe is not always the most important factor. Sometimes the globe together with the stand upon which it rests is valuable because of the furniture maker who designed it, such as the Sheraton globe which was made about the early eighteen hundreds and which was valued at $650.

Globes that are very old, globes that have erroneous information on them, and globes that were designed by names famous in early furniture design are all worth watching for, just as anything connected with the sea is worth watching for. Even a jug with Admiral Nelson's portrait on it can be worth around $20 or $30.

Anything connected with the sea can be of value, although sometimes the item cannot be measured in terms of money. Often a treasure find is measured in terms of historical value far more than monetary value. There was, for example, the man who went on a picnic and found a part of an object that belongs to history.

It is the story of a young man who went on a picnic with the sole purpose of finding relaxation away from the sprawling city of San Francisco. Far from the big city, in the rolling hills and rocky shore of Marin County, California, the young man laughed and joked with his friends, glad, for once, to be away from the dust and grime of everyday living that is the focus around which city life revolves.

He and his friends gathered up the picnic things when they were ready to go home, and they all piled into the young man's car. As they were driving along the busy highway they soon discovered that one of the car's tires had developed a flat.

They fixed the tire, and, when they were finished, the young man took another minute to climb the bluff along the road. He looked down at the pounding Pacific below; then he turned back toward his friends, only to stumble against something that was almost completely buried in the dirt of the hillside.

He picked it up and glanced at it casually. It was a piece of time-blackened metal with an odd round hole in it. As he started to throw it away he felt the soundness of the metal between his thumb and forefinger, and he shrugged and decided to keep it. Maybe his old car could use a piece of metal in its innards some day.He took the piece of metal home with him, threw it into a corner of his garage, and forgot about it for many months-until the time came when the car broke down again.

Metal! He needed a piece of metal! He was just about to go to the junkyard when he remembered the piece of metal he had picked up on the bluff near the ocean on the day of the picnic.

It was dirty, so he picked up a work rag and began to clean away the blackness. "What an odd hole in it," he thought, noticing again the strange, circular cut-out in the metal.

It took quite a while, but finally he could see that part of the black was disappearing. Then he noticed that there was something on the metal. He took it over to the light, and, examining it carefully, he made out the letters of a name-Francis Drake.

The youth was not too sure of what he had, but he knew enough to take the piece of metal to the proper authorities. Today that piece of metal, once intended for use in a young man's car, is the honored property of the University of California.

It is known to historians as "Drake's Plate," left by Drake as a marker claiming the land for Elizabeth I of England, and naming the land New Albion.

But not all of the plate has yet been found. What about the circular hole in the plate? Within that hole, Francis Drake had placed an English sixpence bearing Her Majesty's portrait. Somehow, through the centuries, the coin became separated from the plate, and today, somewhere along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, in Marin County, California, is an English six-penny piece that will fit the hole in Drake's Plate.

If you could find this sixpence, it would be one of the treasure finds of the decade-at least in terms of historical value.

In the days when it took months to cross the ocean and each port was an adventure, a ship became a man's second home and he was as proud of her as though she were his sweetheart.

In his effort to show what he felt about her he placed figures on her bow, figures of many things: of women, statesmen, animals, dolphins, legendary figures, and even alligators.

Today these ships' figureheads can be worth as much as $2,000 to $3,000 apiece. These huge, symbolic figures which have disappeared from the world of ships can take their places in today's museums-at a price that makes it worth the while of any treasure hunter to look for them. For every old ship that sailed the sea there was a figurehead, and today there are many hundreds of them which have never been found. Among these missing figureheads is that of the ship "Columbus," the figurehead representing its namesake, Christopher Columbus.

A long time ago a group of cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy were watching a minstrel show which rang with songs and jokes good enough to make the young students roar with laughter. Highlight of the evening, however, came when the minstrels rolled out a figure which was more than well known to the cheering students.

It did not look like much, with one shoulder broken and the ruff partially gone, the paint showing the effects of the wind-swept storms of the sea, for this was the proud if battered figurehead of the Columbus.

It had known history in its day. It had shipped home Canova's figure of Washington. It was at Canton when the United States negotiated the first treaty of peace with China. Stephen Decatur himself approved a bill to have the carver of the figurehead superintend final work on it. This historic background was one of the reasons why, when the cadets saw the figurehead being rolled forward, they stood up and cheered.

After the evening's entertainment was over, the figurehead, one of the Academy's proudest possessions, had to be put away. It was placed in a shed for safe-keeping-and it disappeared. To this day no one knows what happened to it.

How it came to be at the Academy is a story in itself, for, during the days of the Civil War, the Columbus was berthed at the city of Norfolk at a time when the city fathers were certain that the Confederates were close enough to capture their ships. So they burned them and one of the ships partially destroyed by their own hand was the Columbus. Yet the figurehead itself survived. We do not know if it was removed from the ship before the ship was burned; we know only that it did survive the fire.

From here it traveled to the Boston Navy Yard, and finally to the Naval Academy. And now it has disappeared.

The Columbus figurehead survived many things, even the burning of the ships at Norfolk, but there were many other figureheads in the fire that day and one of them was a figurehead representing Hercules on the ship "Pennsylvania."

The Hercules was not just another figurehead but was the last work by the great figurehead carver William Rush. Knowing that death was imminent he asked only that he be allowed to carve the Hercules for the Pennsylvania. In deference to a dying man's wish he was recommended for the job and got it.

Rush carved the Hercules almost as he lay dying, and it is this Hercules which is missing today. It has been suggested that it was destroyed in the Norfolk fire. Perhaps! And perhaps it was saved like the Columbus! If so, then perhaps you can find it.

Look for it in the junkyards, the lumber yards, and the antique shops. These are the places where you would be most likely to find any missing ship's figurehead-all but one of them, anyway.

This is the figurehead of the whaling ship "Rebecca." The figurehead is, of all things, buried in the sands at New Bedford, Massachusetts, a city which is famous for its connections with the history of the sea. In former times it was a famous port of entry as well as a center for the whaling trade.

At that time one of New Bedford's latest whaling ships was the "Rebecca," and before she was launched a figurehead was placed on her bow, a figurehead representing the eldest daughter of Joseph Russell, who was one of the founders of New Bedford.

Usually, of course, a figurehead goes through storms and battle and even fire before being taken off its ship, yet this time the ship had not even been launched before the figurehead was taken down. The owners of the ship were staunch members of the Society of Friends, and they thought the figurehead was an extravagancein their minds a sinful thing.

Whatever discussions or arguments the rest of the town might have had about the figurehead, the opinions of the owners prevailed and the figurehead was removed. But this was not the end of it, for after its removal some of the younger and more spirited of the male population, including, of all people, the brother of the girl the figurehead depicted, took the figurehead and buried it in the sand.

What an unlikely place to look for a ship's figurehead-yet a treasure can be anywhere at all. And the value can be almost anything. Some figureheads are worth a great deal, and all of them are worth something. There is no guarantee, of course, that the above figureheads are worth the $2,000 or $3,000 mentioned before. It would depend entirely on their condition, and on how much collectors wanted them.This is true of any kind of treasure, but, if you should find a ship's figurehead, and it is old enough and in fine enough condition, it is probably worth a great deal, especially if the ship it decorated was important historically.

One thing to remember in looking for figureheads is that it is possible that the arms are separate from the body. They were made that way so that the arms could be removed in case of a storm, because the arms were easily damaged by rough weather.

But find a figurehead and all its parts and you may have found something worth about four figures.