Sailors’ Valentines

From the charming to the coquettish, these 19th-century love tokens have become covetable collectables – and now is the time to buy, says Virginia Blackburn

c1830, £6,800, from Walpole Antiques; mid-19th-century, sold for £2,125 at Christie’s
c1830, £6,800, from Walpole Antiques; mid-19th-century, sold for £2,125 at Christie’s

Bringing home souvenirs from faraway lands is nothing new, but a particular kind of memento, the sailor’s Valentine – a beautiful little arrangement of shells that a sailor would take back to his sweetheart from Barbados in the 19th century – has become a valuable and sought-after collectable among some of the world’s most stylish sophisticates. Annette de la Renta, for one. Together with her husband, fashion designer Oscar, she has created some stunning interiors in their various homes around the world, including a spectacular feature in one of the bathrooms: a collection of sailors’ Valentines.

These tokens of affection, the best of which can sell for up to £20,000, are also collected by philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield, Lady Bamford and interior designer Anouska Hempel (in May 2013, she sold 11 in the Christie’s auction East & West: A Private Collection from Eaton Square & Anouska Hempel, with the top lot reaching £4,000). They were also said to have been a favourite of Queen Victoria.

Late-19th/early-20th-century, sold for £1,500 at Christie’s
Late-19th/early-20th-century, sold for £1,500 at Christie’s | Image: Christie's Images Limited 2013

“They create a magical picture of a vanished world,” says John Fondas, author of one of the two most authoritative books on the subject, Sailors’ Valentines. “They are charm personified. Delicate things – and not many have survived.”

And now is a good time to buy them. Although prices have soared from a couple of hundred to several thousand pounds over the past decade, “they are very collectable, with the larger ones being particularly sought after”, says Amelia Walker, Christie’s associate director and specialist head of collection sales. “There has been a resurgence in shellwork as an art form.”

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Although sailors’ Valentines are still made today, the collectable pieces stem from what was essentially a cottage industry in Barbados between 1820 and 1880, with the finest made until c1850. They almost certainly originated in a shop in Bridgetown owned by two English brothers, BH and George Belgrave. Local tradesmen would make complicated patterns of shells, later also incorporating motifs such as “Forget Me Not” and “Forever Thine”, which sailors would buy on their way home to Britain and the US. Many have a rose or a heart at their centre. The Valentines are octagonal, glass-fronted, usually 20-38cm in width when closed and the best ones are double-fronted, hinged boxes made with local wood. A particularly good example is currently on sale at London-based maritime-antique dealer Walpole Antiques for £5,800. Dating from c1830 and measuring 69cm by 35cm when open, it has a right-hand design, based on the mariner’s compass, with a flower at its centre, while the left side is a love heart.

Owner Graham Walpole says that collectors should not look just at the shells but at the construction of the case and the clasp, as well as the secondary materials, including cotton wadding and glue. “The cases were made out of cedar or mahogany,” he explains. “Always look for cabinet-quality timber when buying – the better the materials, the more complex the design and the finer the shells.” Entry level for a small Valentine will be about £2,000. Walpole has several other exquisite examples: an 1860s piece with intricate shellwork, the right side centred with a flower (£2,850); another 1860 one bearing the words “For My Mother” (£2,500); and a very fine version from 1830. Costing £6,800, the case is veneered in flame mahogany and the left side has an anchor fashioned from tiny coloured shells, while the right side is based on the mariner’s compass.

c1860, £2,500, from Walpole Antiques
c1860, £2,500, from Walpole Antiques

“They were made using shells and seeds that are indigenous to Barbados,” says Stephan Boyer, owner of specialist dealer Finish Line Collectibles in Pennsylvania. “This is one way of ensuring that you are looking at the real thing. If you are so inclined, you can take them apart and find newspapers from the era at the back, which can date them specifically.” He currently has one for sale, 23cm across when closed, bearing the motif “With Love” ($4,800).

Only about 35 types of shell were ever used, according to Fondas, and the more intricate the work, the better the piece. “In some, gold foil has been used to make the pattern dividers, and others are housed in a mahogany-veneered case that can open. This means that if a shell comes loose, you can access it and fix it,” says Diana Bittel of Diana H Bittel Antiques, another US-based expert. She currently has three in stock: a small one with the motto “Forget Me Not” ($8,500); a medium-sized one with a rare anchor design ($12,500); and a larger one with a heart on one side and an intricate pattern on the other ($15,500).

Mid-19th-century, sold for £2,125 at Christie’s
Mid-19th-century, sold for £2,125 at Christie’s | Image: Christie's Images Limited 2013

Pippa Vlasov, a garden designer who lives in the Bahamas with her husband Peter, who works in shipping, has amassed a significant collection, not least through her friendship with Fondas. “I had started collecting Victorian seaside souvenirs, including shellwork, and when I saw John’s collection I fell in love,” she says. Initial purchases were made on eBay about 18 years ago for $200 – eBay is still a collectors’ source, although most buying is now done through specialist dealers – and after assembling 12, she bought Fondas’s 50-strong collection. “The shellwork must be in good condition or have an unusual saying for me to buy,” she adds. She has one piece that says “Happy Christmas”, which is quite rare, another displaying a pornographic image (very rare – most of the images are charming and naive) and another that has a bouquet of flowers at its centre, a very sought-after design.

“They are chic and fresh,” says Fondas, summing up their appeal. “And folk art looks wonderful in a modern space.”

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