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The rarest models in Seamen's collection are the five or six small ships carved from bone. They were made by French conscripts held captive by the Royal (British) Navy in rotting prison ships during the Napoleonic Wars, from 1803 to 1815. At auction before knowledgeable collectors, these diminutive ships, with their rigging made of spun human hair, might command as much as $50,000 each, according to James Walpole, one of the FDIC's liquidators.
To the untrained, the turn-of-the-century sailors' models are certainly among the most appealing items in the Seamen's collection. These, says ship and model builder Glenn Braun, were built by sailors to pass time during voyages, those "long stretches of boredom punctuated by stretches of terror." Given that merchant voyages often lasted from months to years, Braun acknowledges that on some of these models "the proportions are all out of whack, because the sailors never saw a blueprint nor their ship from a distance." But, he says, they're valued because "they have an aura of authority, despite their warped perspective."
At the other end of the craftsmanship spectrum are the "admiralty board" models. "If the Navy wanted to build a ship," says Braun, "ship designers would show an exquisitely built model to convince the [often] landlubbing admiral that the ship would be a valuable addition." These models would be built with the same techniques required for full-sized versions: steamed ribs, trunneled (wood-pegged) planking and full rigging done in miniature with painstaking accuracy.
Seamen's was understandably keenest about acquiring models of merchant ships of the 19th century, especially the clipper ships that plied the seas during the California Gold Rush, which started in 1848. After all, these ships, many of which were built in shipyards along the East River, were most closely tied to the Seamen's bank. For instance, the model of the Flying Cloud—a particularly beautiful clipper with a slim hull and towering masts—was not constructed until several years after the actual vessel, built by Donald McKay, had made a record-breaking passage (89 days) from New York harbor to San Francisco. Other clipper ships in the collection include the famed Cutty Sark and the four-masted Great Republic, the largest clipper ever built. Some of the clipper models, says Walpole, would go for as much as $10,000 apiece in an open auction.
Seamen's also stockpiled historical models of such warships as the Constitution and the Constellation; miniatures of such whalers as the Viola and the Success; a downsized version of the seven-masted Thomas W. Lawson, the largest schooner ever built; models of the Albion and the Dreadnought, packets that shipped American goods to faraway ports and transported immigrants to New York on the return legs of their journeys. There are numerous models of sleek cruising and racing yachts. Although the preponderance of the collection is devoted to sailing ships, it also includes a model of the side-wheeler Savannah , the first vessel with a steam engine to cross the Atlantic.
But it is not so much the individual pieces as the whole fleet and how it was acquired—its provenance, as curators and collectors say—that makes this a historic treasure. The collection grew of its own impetus over 150 years. It parallels the nation's shipping industry, the port of New York and the Seamen's Bank. "You can't get a collection like this by going out and looking," says Dutton. "It's like the forests and wildlife." Says Braun, "It's a time capsule."
While others lamented the seemingly inevitable dissolution of the collection, Neill was fighting to hold the fleet together. "I got on this the moment I heard the bank was in trouble," he says. "Like any good museum person, I was drooling over it. I contacted the liquidators the day they closed the bank. At first they wouldn't meet with me. But then I worked my way up as high as I could get."
That was high indeed. Neill wrote to William Seidman, the chairman of the FDIC, to New York Senators Alfonse D'Amato and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and to President Bush, pleading his case in the most vivid terms. "If this collection is sold in a private auction," Neill said, "...the bidders will leave the auction with their neat-looking models and put them on their mantel in the offices of partners at some brokerage, and that's the end of it."
Neill even found a way to rationalize why the FDIC should sell the Seamen's collection to the South Street Seaport at bargain-basement rates. The FDIC, he pointed out, is "committed to get the maximum return from its assets, but that does not necessarily mean it's supposed to get the maximum money." Indeed, he said, "part of the public agency's trust is to allow the public to benefit by seeing [the collection]." And, by implication, what better display place for the public to see the biggest collection of American nautical art than the South Street Seaport Museum, which is devoted to the maritime history of New York and the role of ships in its ports?
Neill went so far as to claim that if the FDIC "tries to squeeze the maximum money from the collection," it will be showing "the same pathetic motivation" that caused the banking crisis." That is "unrestrained greed.... [And] I don't believe the public wants to squeeze every penny out of this."