Early-19th Century American Scrimshaw Swift

Value (2009) | $15,000 Insurance$20,000 Insurance

GUEST:
I know it's called a swift, and it's for winding yarn, I believe. How, I'm not sure. I've never actually seen it done. It belonged to my grandmother, and it's been in the family, and I believe she probably used it. She was a knitter.

APPRAISER:
And where did they live?

GUEST:
She lived in the Boston area-- Boston, Rhode Island, that area. She was born in New Bedford.

APPRAISER:
New Bedford.

GUEST:
Yeah.

APPRAISER:
Now, do you display it at home, or do you keep it in a drawer?

GUEST:
Yeah, I have it in a curio cabinet and I take it out every once in a while if we have people over, and we'll play, you know, "What do you think this is?" And I'll open it up and...

APPRAISER:
How many people get it right?

GUEST:
Nobody's ever gotten it right.

APPRAISER:
Well, this is what you said, a swift. And a swift was something that you'd use to wind yarn into a ball. And they were made by sailors on whaling ships. And so this is made of whalebone and whale ivory. The whalebone would be the stays here, and the whale ivory is going to be these turned elements, including the finial, okay?

GUEST:
Right.

APPRAISER:
They had a lot of time on these whaling ships. They had woodworking tools on ship, but something like this which is beautifully turned on a lathe, sometimes that was done on land. And a swift is always a popular item. It's been of interest to collectors for a very long time. And of course when you say your grandmother was born in New Bedford, that was a whaling center. So even if her family wasn't in whaling, it's the kind of thing that was popular and people could buy on shore. They weren't just made for loved ones. The sailors would sell them, too. So I think probably a good guess is that it started its life in the New Bedford area. Now, let's show everybody what it actually looks like when we're using it. You'd wrap the wool yarn around here and then this would spin as you took the skein off and put it in a ball. If you look at these joints all around here, they're all little metal rivets. But out here, it's thread. We believe that there would be a decorative ribbon.

GUEST:
Oh. Okay.

APPRAISER:
And sometimes you'll see them come up at auction, and they'll say, "possibly original red ribbon." So it made it much more colorful.

GUEST:
Uh-huh.

APPRAISER:
And it has a little turnbuckle here, and this would slide into the edge of a table.

GUEST:
Right.

APPRAISER:
Now, as you turned that screw, it put a lot of pressure on this. And there's even a small crack that you can just barely see here.

GUEST:
Right.

APPRAISER:
So a lot of these would break, and once this was broken, it was very hard to use. So, do you have any sense of value, any sense of what the marketplace is for one of these?

GUEST:
I've looked online at them. I don't see very many online, but the ones that I've seen range from about a thousand dollars to... I saw one for $16,000.

APPRAISER:
Now I assume because it's a family piece, you'd like to keep it in the family...

GUEST:
Oh, yeah. ...

APPRAISER:
and you want to talk about insurance value. This one, which I think is a reasonably early one, because when we look at this finial that you see here, that's a Federal-style finial, and that's going to change when you get into the 1840s and '50s.. So I think this is an earlier example. And I think that's going to be a little harder to find with that lovely finial, and I think the condition's great, so for insurance purposes, I would easily put this in the $15,000 to $20,000 range.

GUEST:
Wow. That's much better than I thought.

Appraisal Details

Appraiser
J. M. Flanigan American Antiques
Baltimore, MD
Appraised value (2009)
$15,000 Insurance$20,000 Insurance
Event
Phoenix, AZ (August 01, 2009)
Period
19th Century
Form
Scrimshaw
Material
Bone, Metal, Thread

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