Appraisal of An Early 20th Century Sailor’s Valentine

Patterned Shellwork Is a “Sailor’s Valentine”

Thank you for sending me an image of your sailor’s valentine. It is a great piece of elaborate shellwork and tells a terrific story. The fascination for collecting shells became popular in Europe and America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Sailors and travelers would collect shells and bring them back as mementos and souvenirs of places traveled and the wonders of nature. 

At first it was mythologized that the sailors themselves would spend many hours on their voyages constructing these intricate patterned “valentines” as objects to bestow upon their wives or loved ones upon their return. Realizing that it would be difficult for a sailor with rope-calloused hands to put one of these complex pieces together on a rocking ship, it has been discovered that sailor’s valentines were in fact purchased in the Caribbean Islands, primarily Barbados. Native islanders would make these for the tourist trade. The valentines received their names as their fanciful decoration often incorporated hearts. Other popular motifs were compass stars and blossoming flowers. This shell artwork became very popular in the mid to late 19th century.

Most sailor’s valentines were encased behind glass in hinged mahogany octagonal frames that would protect the fragile shells. This type of shellwork continues today and can be beautifully crafted. Presently on exhibit in our shop are contemporary sailor’s valentines by noted Cape Cod artists Judy & William Davis and historic preservation artist Linda Lefko. These artworks are quite spectacular in design and execution; I urge you to come in to see their exquisite fine details. As part of our current marine art exhibit, we also just acquired one of the largest 19th-century sailor’s valentines that I have ever seen. It boasts a New Bedford provenance, a historic seafaring city on the south coast of Massachusetts.

Sailor’s valentines vary in price and some can sell for more than $10,000. Intricacy, color, pattern, condition and age are all important in determining value.

Your sailor’s valentine is likely from the early 20th century and I would value it at $400.

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