Some Thoughts on Collecting Nautical Antiques and Artifacts

by John M. MacFarlane 2011

Royal Navy Officer’s Swordbelt c1840

Royal Navy Officer’s Swordbelt c1840


As a former museum curator I am often asked my opinion on the collecting of nautical antiques. There has always been a keen group of collectors focusing on items of a nautical theme but currently popular television programs seem to be stoking interest in collecting (and dealing in) marine antiques. I should point out at the outset that I am not a collector – having donated most of my holdings to museums years ago. The key thing to consider is that unless you can collect over several decades you are unlikely to turn over a significant profit in nautical antiques – pick another field. But if your passion is collecting something related to nautical heritage – my advice is go ahead – forewarned that the pleasure of collecting may be your only reward.

Collecting vs Investing

Collecting is different from investing in that the primary motivation is enjoyment of the artifacts, the understanding of their fabrication and the sheer thrill of holding history in your own hands. Any profit which may accrue is by sheer chance and probably an unintended consequence of collecting. Accumulating is the form of collecting that encompasses the desire to have one of everything. And by all means avoid hoarding – if you are hoarding get help!

If you are a speculator in the nautical antiques market you must keep up with prices – and be prepared to sell at a moments notice. Prices of some objects can actually go down – particularly if the class of item has gone out of favour with collectors.Remember that however much fun it is to collect outboard motors, or nautical hardware, or uniforms (all as examples) there may not be many buyers when its time to sell. Being able to store an item is a factor – but there aren't many dealers who will carry these and other awkward items in their inventory.

The best general advice to collectors will seem sometimes to be counter–intuitive. Buy that beautiful brass binnacle only if you can display it, and want to hang on to it forever. Items like this are mainly of interest to seafood restaurants. There were thousands of binnacles produced over the last 150 years in the world – and many of them are still around. Ship’s wheels are another area of caution as every ship had more than one – and some had several – and these are the items that tended to be saved when the ship was broken up. So there are lots of them around. How many ships have existed over time? There are so many in existence that they usually aren’t worth as much as people think.

As a generalization, nautical collectors can be reluctant to pay top dollar for artifacts. They tend to be very frugal. They will however pay for items that are well documented and have a known provenance – associated with a personality, a famous ship or event. He says that chronometers (once an item in demand) are off their high values as are ship’s wheels, lanterns and binnacles which were all once commanding high values. Now, for example, good quality original prints of photographs, or albums are desirable – as are letters, diaries and documents.

A reputable dealer will share his information freely with a good customer, and give you good advice on buying and selling. The dealer will reward loyalty from the customer and that is what keeps the dealer in business for years – a continuing clientele. But don’t expect to get free information if you aren’t a buyer – the dealer isn’t keen on giving away information that took a lifetime to acquire. If you are mainly buying on the internet don’t expect a dealer to assist you for free – this may be your hobby but its their business. Museum curators are busy people and may be reluctant to advise you for free – expect to make a donation or to pay a fee to them for advice.

Luck is a big factor too. People are currently paying way too much for the average nautical antique, based on inflated values being pitched on television and unrealistic expectations by accumulators and collectors. Television programs about pickers and pawn shops are building unrealistic expectations of values. In real life prices paid by serious collectors and dealers will be much less than portrayed on television.

Collectors should keep a bound notebook and record details of every item they acquire no matter how small a transaction. That notebook itself will become a valuable tool later in the life of the collection. Record details, information about the seller, diagrams, descriptions and any research you may undertake related to the item. The notebook should be bound so that you don’t lose bits of paper and everything is kept in chronological order.

Another valuable piece of information to collectors is LISTEN to what other collectors, sellers and dealers tell you about things. Collectors should invest in a good library for reference. Most of all there is only sometimes room for making money. Either the dealer or the collector can make money on a transaction but probably not both at the same time - most of all it is unlikely that a collector can flip items quickly for a profit.

Mounted Medal Group

Example of a Mounted Naval Medal Group

When I worked in the museum collections I saw the artifacts at the other end of the process, when collectors were often disposing of pieces from their collection. They used the museum to research the piece, to help establish its provenance or sometimes to donate it to the collection. From my own point of view I would offer these Ground Rules For Collecting of nautical antiques.

  • – Adopt a field within the nautical antiques area and acquire some expertise through reading, research and discussion. You will never know enough - its a matter of lifetime learning.
  • – Cultivate the experts in your field: the major collectors, curators, appraisers – and seek out their opinions particularly on significant purchases. Building these relationships will take time and energy - and helps to make the collecting really interesting.
  • – Buy the best examples that you can afford. Buying one superb item is much better than buying several lower quality items, and that item is more likely to hold resale value.
  • – Never buy any item you don't actually like. Every item in your collection must be a joy to look at and a joy to own. Leave the large, awkward, ugly stuff to the museums – particularly if it is chiefly important in an ethnographic or research sense.
  • – When you buy an item think about whether or not you think you could sell it again, if necessary. Is there an after market – or are you the only one who is likely to buy it? If you are, it won't have much resale value.
  • – Collecting is generally done from September to May, peaking at Christmas. Auction prices tend to be lower in summer. Buy in summer, sell in October or November. In locations like Victoria however - most buyers arrive as tourists in summertime, so this pattern can be counter–intuitive.
  • – Buy items that are being sold geographically removed from their area of focus. (for example British Columbia items will usually sell for less in Europe).Some objects are in more demand if they are being sold in close proximity to their location of significance. The theory is that the farther away from the location of focus – the less expensive they will be to purchase. (British Columbia objects will likely be most valuable in British Columbia).
  • – It is sometimes possible to get a real bargain, but it often depends on luck. For example, perhaps the owner is unaware of the object's significance. Perhaps an expert has made a mistake in the pricing. These occurences are usually rare – and low priced objects are probably priced that way for a reason. Do your diligence in ascertaining this at the time of sale. It is always "buyer beware" – an object is still worth whatever a buyer will pay for it!
  • – Remember that there is a cost to buying, maintaining and selling a collection – you must factor that into the decision to get involved.
  • – Hang on to your collection as long as you can – for a lifetime if you are able. Care for the collection as if it was in a museum. Learn about and exercise the same conservation techniques, security and care that a curator would in a museum setting.

The Seller

Who is the seller? What do you know about them? Is it a known and trusted prominent dealer? Or is it someone who just claims to be an expert – maybe someone on the internet? How trustworthy is their opinion? Is the seller guessing about the item, or are they actually qualified to establish the significance of the item? Do they have an established good reputation? For example, some unscrupulous dealers will suggest greater significance for an object to increase the asking price – if you are doubtful query this carefully and get more than the selling dealer’s word or opinion – and ask for documentary proof.


Defining quality is difficult and is a combination of condition, the type or class of object, and other somewhat undefinable characteristics. It remains, however, the key factor in determining how quickly any item can be sold and at what price. Collectors are always interested in the finest examples of craftsmanship or materials. Buy the best example you can afford. Don’t settle for less because you buy a poor example you will likely own that poor example forever unless you can find someone to ’unload‘ it on.


The number of examples of similar items that are available on the market at any one time has a big bearing on the price. If there are a number available the price will drop. Its a matter of supply and demand. Uncommon items tend to get rarer through time as the best examples disappear into museum collections or become destroyed. But be careful, some items become so rare that the collecting public loses interest in them simply because they can't access the market supply. As interest in them wanes they actually can drop in value.

Historical Importance

A piece that has links an historical event usually brings a price premium. Owners need to provide documentary evidence of the connection - word of mouth is not enough. The reputation of many pieces purporting to be related to famous people or significant events are often based on family legends or outright fraud. Research can help to settle the matter satisfactorily - but it may take some real digging. This is where a relationship with a good museum curator can be invaluable.

Certainty of Attribution

If the identity of the creator of the object is known with certainty, and if the identity of the subject in a known image or if the identity of the original owner has significance then the item will carry a price premium. This information should be documented and again this may come from clues the collector has been recording in their acquisitions notebook.


Remember that there are a lot of forgeries and fakes on the market. The difference between the two is subtle. A fake is an object not meant to deceive. For example a reproduction is a fake - and as long as everyone knows that it is a reproduction no harm is done. These objects can start out as honest copies but can become forgeries if they are passed off as originals – even if this is done in ignorance of the facts. A forgery is an object intended to deceive others into believing that it is an original. Some older reproductions, if they are fine enough, and old enough, can be collectible as well.


The provenance is the pedigree of the object – the list of owners going back to the artist, creator or original owner. This is essential for assigning attribution. A good documented provenance is only good back to the last proven owner. An orphan is an object of unknown original origin. A documented well–known previous owner sometimes increases the price.


You should factor the price up or down according to the condition of the object. If you can choose between several examples go for the best condition that you can afford. Be wary – unscrupulous sellers will sometimes refinish objects or repair damage (and not tell you). This usually decreases the value (but not if the repair is well done and documented. But be sensible – a damaged example in a collection that has been professionally restored is better than having no example at all.

Laws Governing Sale

Some nations, including Canada, have strict regulations on the export of certain works of art and cultural heritage that is of significance to the country in which the item resides. Penalties for violation of the rules can be significant and the inability to export the item may be a factor the price. Exporting any item made from an endangered species, (for example marine mammal ivory), cannot be exported and you can count on having your item seized by the authorities if you break the rules.


Objects that have been publicized at some time in their life will often command higher prices (or cost more). Exhibition in a museum exhibit, appearance in a trade magazine or catalogue – particularly if there is a picture of the item – will all push up the price. Check to see if that has occurred – or see if you can arrange that for your piece to be publicized.

RCN Officer’s China

RCN Officer’s China


Getting an appraisal of an object can help to confirm that the price being paid by the seller or buyer is appropriate for the item and it’s attributes. Make sure the appraiser is qualified to make the appraisal – and that they are independent of the seller (if you are concerned about any aspect of the sale). The cost of obtaining an appraisal will be the responsibility of the buyer and the cost will vary with the amount of detail in the written report. The highest quality items should be appraised with the following details in the report (full appraisal including all of these items is likely to be pricey):

  • – the date of appraisal
  • – the client’s name and address
  • – the purpose of the appraisal
  • – a statement of disinterest (declaring that there is no conflict of interest by the appraiser)
  • – the name of the creator of the item
  • – the exact measurements and full description
  • – (if applicable) description of the medium, its support and signature and/or date
  • – description of condition
  • – the provenance of the piece
  • – exhibition and publication history
  • – any exceptions or special conditions that might affect pricing
  • – details of recent sales records of similar items
  • – the value of the item
  • – a colour photograph of the object
  • – the name, address and qualifications of the appraiser
  • – the appraiser's signature (and stamp if appropriate)
  • – the name of the owner of copyright (if appropriate)

Tax Consequences of Sale & Gifts to Museums

The sale or donation of an item to a museum can generate capital gains, which will be of interest to the tax collector. The gift of the item to a museum may actually be a ‘deemed disposition’ for the donor unless you do not request a ‘tax receipt’ at the time of donation. In either case you should get a qualified tax accountant’s opinion in advance on the impact this might have on your annual tax exposure. I have seen some donors end up paying more income tax than they would have if they had simply donated the object to the museum rather than requesting a tax receipt.

Don’t buy a piece specifically to donate it to a museum unless you know for sure that the museum wants the item. Be warned that any item you donate to a museum may eventually be sold or traded away by the museum once they own it. If the items are very dear to you don’t expect a museum to curate your family collection – you might discover (to your horror) that in the future these items are no longer available to you to be seen or accessed. Confer with the museum collections manager in advance of a donation – you might discover that your collection is more valuable to another collector than to the museum.

Besides the enjoyment, awareness and education that collectors experience they also perform of valuable function preserving cultural heritage and artifacts that are important to the understanding of maritime heritage. Museums cannot collect and care for everything – so there is a higher function of the personal collection. Maritime collecting is still in a nascent phase – even the newest entrant can potentially acquire a first class collection over time.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2011) Some Thoughts on Collecting Nautical Antiques and Artifacts. 2011.


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