Living With History -Winter 2015
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
Nina Hellman can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in history. For more than 35 years, she and her husband Bob have earned a reputation for being serious and respected collectors of mostly marinerelated antiques. They curated and sold those items from their shop, Nina Hellman Antiques on Centre Street until recently, and now exclusively online.
Since 1995, they have lived here year-round in a rambling, three-story house built in the 1700s. Before they bought it, the building served as an inn.
Today its many rooms are filled with the Hellmans’ collections of Nantucket memorabilia that include paintings, photographs, early posters, furniture, scrimshaw, carvings and artifacts that depict Nantucket scenes and its history during the era from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s when the island was a thriving whaling community.
In the first half of the 19th century Nantucket was an important whaling port, and Nantucket whale oil lit most of the lamps in the world until the mid-1800s, when oil was discovered in the hills of western Pennsylvania, the Great Fire destroyed much of downtown in 1846 and gold was discovered in California in 1849. Nina and Bob have both been guest lecturers on various aspects of whaling and scrimshaw, and as a former trustee of the Nantucket Historical Association, Nina serves as an advisor to several maritime museums and was the guest curator for a scrimshaw exhibit at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York.
The third floor of the Hellmans’ house, approached by a winding narrow stairway, is akin to a small, private museum or gallery. The couple created it to house Bob’s collection of whaling implements that document the history of the American whaling industry on Nan-
tucket. He’s been a collector for more than 40 years. The implements, some stamped with the ship and the maker’s names and dates, harpoons and guns for catching and killing the whales, as well as spades used to cut up the blubber and instruments for processing the oil, are arranged in chronological order around the attic-like environment. Once a series of tiny rooms, walls were removed to create the exhibit space. Bob points out the double-flued harpoons that were the earliest style, and what would have been used by Nantucket whalers.
Aside from the tools of the trade, there is a ship’s wheel from the Commodore Morris, a New Bedford whaling ship, rigged up to turn, just as it was on the ship. A long wooden display case, across a small adjacent room, holds early log books with entries from whaling journeys, and the walls display black-andwhite photographs of various important ships of the era. It is a treasure trove of a defining period in Nantucket’s history.
As part of this period in the island's history, scrimshaw, the indigenous art of seafaring whalemen, was born. Scrimshaw is the art of scribing a design on a piece of ivory, most often a whale’s tooth. The craft originated during our nation’s earliest years by New England whalers who spent several years at sea. To relieve the boredom of excessively long, monotonous whaling voyages, they spent their leisure time drawing and scribing on the teeth and bones. Some of the most popular items were tool handles, clothespins, walking
sticks, jagging wheels and busks to stiffen a woman’s corset. The sailors plied their craft for their own pleasure and it was only the rare individual among the group who displayed real talent. The quality of the work varied greatly and therein lies much of the charm of the craft.
As a recognized authority on scrimshaw, and author of “A Mariner’s Fancy: The Whaleman’s Art of Scrimshaw,” Nina Hellman has over the years guided many collectors who have relied on her expertise to help them find pieces to add to their collections. One of them, Tom Mittler, was a staunch enthusiast. With his love of the sea and all things hand-crafted, Nina advised him as he carefully selected worthwhile items to enhance those previously acquired. Over the years Tom frequently talked to Nina about producing a book on his collection. In 2010, Mittler died and his wife Charlotte decided to honor his wishes for a book documenting his impressive collection. Who better to write it than Nina Hellman?
Together with photographer Eileen Powers, Nina spent the past two years producing what would become “Through The Eyes Of a Collector: The Scrimshaw Collection of Thomas Mittler.”
Mittler was inspired by the thought that scrimshaw was “done by untrained people depicting their daily lives,” and further expressed “a feeling of accomplishment and joy” in having something that intrigued him, Nina said.
“As a seasoned collector, Tom could be excited equally by the acquisition of a major piece as well as a lesser one that might have artistic appeal or enhance his knowledge of the time from which it emanated,” she added.
“I would encourage new collectors to take a lesson from Tom and to be undaunted by the escalation in recent years of market prices for more iconic pieces. Worthwhile objects at more modest cost are often available, and though they rarely come with a story or documentation, they may offer opportunities for better understanding of the life, activities and thoughts of their creators,” Nina said. ///
Leslie Linsley is a nationally-known author on design. Her latest book is “Nantucket Cottages & Gardens,” with photographer Terry Pommett.