Monday, July 29, 2013

A Coat Rack Like No Other

Between 1874 and 1878 Captain John Orrin Spicer of Groton, Connecticut commanded the whaleship NILE on four voyages to the Eastern Arctic bringing back, primarily, whalebone (or baleen) and whale oil. On at least one of those voyages Captain Spicer brought back tusks from the narwhal, a small arctic whale. These he had fashioned, along with walrus tusk ivory and exotic wood, into one of the most unusual coat racks you are likely to encounter. It was made as a gift for his wife and after quite a number of years, and at least one other owner, it was donated to Mystic Seaport in 1964. The tusks are fitted into four wooden ball-shaped feet that support a wooden platform from which sprouts the central wooden column, topped by a crown of walrus tusk spindles. The narwhal tusks are connected to the central column with more ivory pegs supporting a ring of ivory. The tallest of the tusks is just over seven feet high.
Doug Currie, Randy Wilkinson and Chris White prepare the coat rack for an X-Ray.

Unfortunately, the coat rack has not been on exhibit for many years due to its poor condition. It was once again pushed into the spotlight, however, when Dr. Stuart Frank of the New Bedford Whaling Museum did a thorough examination and detailed report of the scrimshaw collection at Mystic Seaport. While not a piece of scrimshaw, the unusually constructed piece of furniture does incorporate a number of ivory elements. Stuart calls this a masterwork that is a “unique survivor of what must even in its day been a rare form…” Interest in the coat rack has continued to grow. Obviously, the time to act on repairing, or at least stabilizing, this artifact has come. With that in mind, we have contracted Fallon and Wilkinson Furniture Conservators to assess the piece and suggest treatments that will enable us to once again share this unusual object with our visitors.

As a first step, our Collections manager, Chris White, and Randy Wilkinson transported the coat rack to Fallon and Wilkinson’s studio with a four hour layover at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The stop at Mashantucket was essential in helping us determine what treatments we might be able to perform because the Research Center there has an X-Ray facility large enough to examine all elements of the item. Doug Currie, the Head of Conservation at the Mashantucket Museum, maneuvered the tools of his trade to get internal views of the fittings used to keep the coat rack together. Doug’s work confirmed a number of suspicions about the piece that tries to meld narwhal tusks, walrus ivory, exotic wood and iron fittings into a single entity. Unfortunately all those materials are not very compatible as they expand and contract at different rates and react to each other in ways that are less than beneficial to the object, resulting in a now wobbly construction that needs to be remedied.
Notice of acquisition in the January, 1965 Log of Mystic Seaport. 

As can be seen in the picture taken at the Mashantucket facility, this is just the beginning of the journey for this nearly 140-year-old relic. The second picture is from the January, 1965 Log of Mystic Seaport. 

Wish us luck and look for it to be on exhibit in the not-too-distant future.