Messing About in Boats

News stories this week are showing the stricken cruise ship, Costa Concordia, being re-floated and towed to the scrap heap, and that gets the attention of my inner sailor. Actually, it’s not much of a stretch, as I’m editor of Marine Technology magazine, and most days I’m surrounded by all things maritime.

But ship salvage fascinates me. So much so that I found myself more or less obsessed with this one particular dealer booth at an outdoor show last fall. Among other large artifacts, this guy had a truly stunning ship’s telegraph—a throttle control on a stand that mounted to a ship’s deck—and I spent quite a bit of time admiring it. Made of brass and other metals, the unit was propped up against a tent pole (due to the ship’s deck staying behind when it was salvaTelegraph picged) and absolutely screamed early 20th century industrial design. It may not have been love, but I definitely was smitten with this piece of maritime history. The telegraph itself was similar to the one shown at left, although this one is without the stand. (It still sold for almost $300 at a 2011 auction.)

I moved on after seeing the price (way out of my range), but then circled back—several times—to look at the telegraph again. Did I think the price would magically change to one that I could handle? Who knows? Maybe it was the idea that this device, having spent years and years guiding some long-forgotten ship on its appointed rounds, now was sitting in a field surrounded by wicker chairs and soda signs and garden statues and somehow I hated that that part of its history had come to an end.

A business conference in Houston a few years back included a weekend visit to Galveston, where I had a chance to poke around Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor, a ship salvage shop run by Michael and Adrienne Culpepper. Net floats, deck lights, buoys, navigational tools, cleats, liferings and on and on. If it was once part of a ship, the Culpeppers rescue it and find it a good home. My time there was great fun, so I called Michael recently to see where the nautical antique market is headed. I especially wanted to hear his thoughts on telegraphs and other ship control units. “Well, it’s Binnaclestill hard to find the good stuff,” he told me. “We’re seeing more aluminum units—usually they’re Japanese made—now than ever before. And in terms of finding telegraphs and binnacles [deck-mounted instrument stands], the price of scrap metal affects us a lot…when the market prices for brass and copper go up, that has a real impact on what we’re able to get.”

Michael also said that their customers tend not to be nautical collectors. Rather, many of them are non-collectors who are just struck by a particular piece. “Often it’s a person who stops in front of a binnacle and realizes, ‘Hey…that would look great in our front hallway,’ and that starts the process.”

He also told me that overall, their business has picked up in the last couple of years, and that demand for these larger pieces is strong. Just what I didn’t want to hear as I hunt for a ship’s telegraph that costs less than a mortgage payment.

Douglas R. Kelly is considering selling his miniature wastepaper basket collection to raise enough cash to buy a telegraph.


Pranks by Proxy

Maybe it’s because I leave things lying around, but for some reason, the gag and joke items that I’ve collected over the years seem to work most effectively when I’m not there. These joy buzzers and rubber candies and squirting quarters go back to the 1930s and 1940s, and some of them still function as well as they did the day they left the factory. As long as I’m not around.dribbleglass

About a week before my wonderful wife, Laura, and I got married, my parents gave us an early wedding present: a new queen-size bed. It had to be delivered while I was at work, so I asked Laura’s mom, Shirley, if she might come to my apartment and make sure the delivery and setup went smoothly. This she did on the appointed day, watching as the delivery guys muscled the bed up three flights of stairs to the apartment.

As they were getting things squared away, one of the guys asked Shirley if he might have a glass of water. “Of course,” said my future mother-in-law, heading for the kitchen cabinet. She apparently grabbed the first glass that presented itself, filled it with water, and handed it to our unsuspecting friend. Shirley told us later that she watched the man drink from the glass as water dribbled down all over the front of his shirt. This struck her as very unusual—drinking from a glass generally being a skill mastered early on in life—but she said she didn’t say a word as the man finished the water (or what there was of it actually in the glass) and handed the glass back to her. “Thank you,” he said as he went back and finished his work with his partner.Gag radio

It was then that Shirley saw the slots cut into the decorative pattern on the outside of the glass, and realized she’d been had. My dribble glass had done its job perfectly and I wasn’t even there to enjoy it! Still, hearing Shirley recount what had happened—especially the part about the guy not saying a word as he irrigated his shirt—was hugely fun and of course has become something of a family legend.

This wasn’t the first time one of the pranks in my collection had done its dirty work in my absence. Check out my feature article, “How to Amuse Your Friends,” in the April 2014 issue of Antiques Roadshow Insider and learn how my friend Joel ran afoul of my exploding pen at exactly the wrong moment.

And if you want to have lots of laughs along with a great history lesson, get a copy of Kirk Demarais’s book, Life of the Party. It’s a history of the S.S. Adams Company, which has been the gold standard of gag and joke makers for more than 100 years. Check it out at

Douglas R. Kelly keeps trying to pull the classic “Nail Through Finger” gag on his wife, but she’s got his number.

Connecting People to Objects

The artifacts we pursue—whether mid-century, rusted, paper, 1880s, metal, mint condition, glass, or whatever categories they fall into—are the reason we’re in the game. But an old saying has worked its way into my consciousness lately, and like most time-worn adages, it has an element of truth to it: it’s the people, and the relationships, that matter the most.

This was impressed upon me once again recently at an outdoor show that serves as the beginning of the antiques year here in central North Carolina. The field at this twice-yearly event doesn’t open until 8AM (haven’t they heard of dawn?), so I was motoring among the tents and booths by 8:04, doing the back-and-forth head swivel thing as I scanned the landscape for the stuff of dreams. In the third aisle, I stopped at a tent containing an assortment of old toys. As I made my way in among the throng, I recognized the booth’s owners, a husband and wife team from whom I’d bought several good pieces at this show the previous year.

With all of the people and the activity going on in and around the tent, I didn’t expect them to remember me or the items I had purchased from them more than 6 months before. The husband greeted me and motioned me over to one of his display trays. “We’ve got some good oddball stuff this time,” he said, pointing to a small metal car in one of the trays. Rare would have been a better word for this toy, which I recognized as one that had been made for just a short time in the mid-1950s. It was in nearly perfect original condition and I bought it on the spot.

“You were here last year and you’re after the unusual stuff, right?” I was surprised that he remembered, and we began talking about old toys and the items he and his wife had sold me at the previous show. He reminded me of one in particular—a hard-to-find six-inch plastic Pontiac coupe made by FitchIrwin Pontiac smallerburg, Massachusetts-based Irwin Corporation in the early 1950s. It was in excellent original condition and the friction motor worked like a charm. I told him it looks terrific in my collection, and he really seemed to get a kick out of that.

I actually had bought the Pontiac as part of a “bundle” deal, which also included a delivery van made by Ideal, about five inches in length. But while examining the van later during a food break, I discovered it was missing part of its front bumper. Although I had bought the van in good faith and any flaws were now my problem, I went back to the seller’s booth with a proposal. After showing him the damage to the van, I asked if he’d be inteTootsietoy kitrested in taking the van back in exchange for my purchasing a Tootsietoy sports car kit that I had been eyeing in one of his cases. The kit was an Austin-Healy, made around 1960, and was still on its original blistercard. The kit was more expensive than the Ideal van, and I suggested that I just give him the difference. He didn’t have to accept the deal, of course, as it meant he’d be taking back a damaged item.

But to his credit, he said yes, enabling me to acquire a piece that I planned to photograph and include in a feature article I was working on for a magazine in England. Like the Pontiac, the Austin-Healy kit has a fair degree of accuracy, and it’s really a snapshot of 1950s automotive design.

On balance, a fun day made even better by dealers who help connect people to the right objects. They’re at the show to make money, of course, but it was obvious these two also enjoyed seeing their treasures go to good homes. As I drove out of the show grounds, I realized I’d forgotten to ask their names. Note to self: look for these dealers—these friends, I guess they’re becoming—at the fall show.

Douglas R. Kelly loves old stuff and would live in one of his display cabinets if he thought someone would bring him his meals.