Thrift shop treasure
To the eye of many patrons who scour the bargain filled bins of the Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven, it might have been worth $5. It was a harbor scene, painted on a piece of plywood by an artist of dubious training. The frame was broken and dirt was ground into the top right corner. It looked like it might have spent the last couple of decades stored away in a musty garage.
To the eye of someone immersed in the world of folk art, it had some interesting qualities, a sort of innocence in its connection to the harbor, and a level of authenticity that suggested the painter had an intimate knowledge of the vessels depicted, if not the artistic talent to paint them perfectly. To folk art dealer Rick Lee of Aquinnah, a volunteer at the Thrift Shop and assistant treasure for Martha's Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), it might have been worth $400, on a good day.
To the eye of Vineyard Haven artist, educator, and art collector Ted Hewett, who like Mr. Lee is a volunteer at the Thrift Shop, it looked moderately interesting. But then, slowly at first, and then with a rush of excitement, Mr. Hewett realized the painting, dropped off by an anonymous donor, was quite valuable.
"This is the find of the year," said Mr. Hewett later. "To get something like that is very exciting."
What they had is known among a growing circle of collectors, historians, and art dealers, as a "Captain Ivory."
"It's the most exciting Captain Ivory I've found," said Mr. Hewett. "We don't usually get anything that exciting, that relevant to our lives, our history.''
Photo courtesy of Captain Ivory Society
Captain John J. Ivory was a painter of mysterious biography. Many of the facts surrounding his existence here on Martha's Vineyard are open to dispute. For starters, Ivory is probably not his real name. Born about 1878, perhaps in Dublin, Ireland, he joined the U.S. Navy in 1898, and saw action in the Spanish-American War. Sometime during his tour of duty, he seems to have jumped ship, looking for adventure. He spent a lifetime in the merchant marine, a career that stretched from the age of sail to the dawn of ocean-going super tankers. He was by most accounts an accomplished seaman who knew East Coast ports well enough to bring enormous cargo ships safely into port.
About 1960, he retired to the Vineyard, where by various accounts, his well-developed fondness for cheap wine landed him in various scrapes around Vineyard Haven. By some accounts, when his wife periodically demanded he vacate their home because of one problem or another, he would drift down to the waterfront where an abandoned boat named "Dry Tortugas" served quite well as a temporary berth. He also sometimes bunked at the Seamen's Bethel, where the chaplain befriended him, like many a sailor before him, in an effort to steer him on a more righteous path.
Photo Courtesy of the Martha's Vineyard Museum
Always a bit hard up for cash, Captain Ivory discovered that he could usually earn five or ten bucks by scrounging some paint and a makeshift canvas to create a scene from his colorful past.
"He worked on anything he could get a hold of," said Mr. Hewett. He might scavenge nearly empty cans of house paint or castoff plywood. It is said he would fashion a paintbrush from a twig and a snip of is own hair. He would paint pictures of ships he had sailed aboard, set in harbors he had visited. There are examples of his work on boards, masonite, even sea shells. His priorities, however, were always more toward spirits than pigments. It is said that a benefactor once gave him some proper brushes and oil paints. He sold them for money to buy booze. Sometimes he would trade a painting for kindnesses offered, such as a square meal, or a ride to the package store. Captain Ivory died in 1964. He is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery in Vineyard Haven.
Nearly 20 years after his death, a spirited market developed for Captain Ivory's art work, and Mr. Hewett, along with Island banking executive Bill Honey, formed the Captain Ivory Society to document more than 200 known works by the old salt. Every painting they could find was authenticated, documented, and photographed. In later years, Island residents Stuart Bangs, an early friend of Captain Ivory, and Jane Slater, an antique dealer, furthered the cause. Ms. Slater's antique shop in Menemsha is the unofficial headquarters of the Captain Ivory Society.
The market for the paintings has remained relatively strong. It is not unusual for a Captain Ivory to be sold at prices north of $3,500. Most of the paintings are held in private collections, including a large collection in Texas held by one of the captain's descendents. Through an extraordinary donation by Ruth White, The Captain Ivory Society acquired several paintings, which are on display for all to see at the Vineyard Haven Library.
Art imitates charity
The painting donated to the Thrift Shop depicts the Madison Edwards, a power launch operated by the Seamen's Bethel, approaching the stern of a large sailing vessel. Standing on the stern of the ship is a man with a hat and a pipe. On the foredeck of the launch is a man holding what looks like scrolled paper, perhaps a newspaper or a nautical chart. On the stern of the launch are a woman and a girl dressed in white. The vessels are remarkable in historic authenticity, and the scene may be a self-portrait of sorts. The man on the ship could be Captain Ivory himself, and the people on the launch might be Madison Edwards II and his family. Mr. Edwards was the bethel chaplain, and the son of the man who lent his name to the launch that ferried weary sailors to shore for a warm bunk and a square meal in hopes they would stay out of the bars.
"It's got all the element of his life, and what his influences were," said Mr. Lee. "It's what saved him. It's really just a simple expression of him."
Once it was authenticated, there were several private buyers interested in purchasing the painting. But Mr. Lee saw a way for the painting to remain accessible to the public, and still earn a sizable donation for MVCS, the Islandwide charity that operates the Thrift Shop. He contacted the Martha's Vineyard Museum, which has a large collection of artifacts from the Seamen's Bethel.
"It's pretty unique," said Mr. Lee. "This is a really great piece of folk art. We felt the people best to have this would be the museum. Their collections committee approved it."
Museum curator Jill Bouck says the painting will eventually be displayed along with other items from the Seamen's Bethel. "He's very well known on Martha's Vineyard as a folk artist," she said. "It's local. There's always some interest in your own neighborhood."
While the principals were reluctant to reveal the purchase price, it is reliably estimated at $3,000, all of which will go to MVCS to provide free and low cost community services to Island families.
When Captain Ivory was selling or giving away his paintings, it might have been hard for him to imagine that some day his work would be highly valued here on his adopted Island. It might have been harder still for him to imagine that one of his paintings would benefit Island families, some who may be struggling with the same demons that plagued him.
"It's a really a great story," said Mr. Lee.
Except, perhaps, for the person who dropped the painting off at the Thrift Shop.