Who owns this damn thing anyway?

- by Bruce E. McKinney


In August 2019 I made a run at auction at some paintings of 19th century Hudson River vessels and simply ended up raising other people’s winning bids.  There were three paintings and they all went high.  That’s the way it goes.  Only a week later, an ideal possible acquisition for my 7 counties of the mid-Hudson Valley collection would be coming up on August 23rd  at Thomaston, a said-to-said to be 19th century watercolor of “The Ship Factor of Pokeepsie N.Y., B. E. Howland Master off Goveners [sp] Island, N.Y.”, in whose family this watercolor was descended.   Nice.


Because my collection is very focused I tend to have deep [however imperfect] understanding of the pieces and parts that randomly appear at auction, on listing sites, on eBay, and in dealer catalogues.  This image was very appealing because in the late 18th century Poughkeepsie was emergent, still yet to be developed, but clearly a prime candidate for industrial development along the path on America’s industrial revolution that was wending north in later decades toward the Erie Canal.  There wasn’t much money toward the end of the 18th century  but the Hudson River, would become America’s Broadway within a few decades.  The place was pregnant with possibilities.


Here’s the auction description at Thomaston’s August 23 sale:


Watercolor of the Ship "Factor of Poughkeepsie, New York, B.E. Howland, Master of Governors Island in New York", broadside view of the rolling ship, sailing right to left with a #7 pilot boat leading the way past the Fort on Governor's Island, flying an American flag, the center mast with the pennant, "Factor", in red and white with sperm whale decoration and the American flag off the back; seven men are climbing the rigging and many are on the deck; titled in the margin below, nicely framed in a contemporary mahogany frame. OS: 17 1/2" x 24 1/2", SS: 12 3/4" x 19". Light overall foxing but generally in good condition. PROVENANCE: This watercolor descended through the family of Captain B.E. Howland of the ship "Factor".


It was an easy decision to bid and buy.  The price all-in was $2,740.


When it arrived I found a place on my office walls as a perfect perch, just above where the lights are turned on and off.  It’s terrific.


And then the story gets complicated.


On eBay, I recently found:


 An antique watercolor with a broadside view of the rolling ship, Factor, sailing right to left with a #7 pilot boat leading the way past the Fort on Governor’s Island. The ship is flying an American flag and shown with most of the sails out. The center mast has a ship pennant “Factor,” a red and white pennant having a sperm whale decoration and the American flag off the back. Seven men are climbing the rigging and many are on the deck, one with a spyglass. Titled along the base “The Ship Factor of Pokeepsie NY, B.E. Howland Master, Off Governors Island in New York”. This unsigned watercolor on paper probably dates to the 19th century and is in good condition, with some light overall foxing, as well as other imperfections, and is nicely reframed in a contemporary mahogany frame, matted under glass. Provenance: Descended through the family of Captain B.E. Howland of the ship, Factor. Dimensions: 12 ¾” h x 19” w, actual; 17 ½” h x 24 ½” w, framed.


Does it sound familiar?


Out of curiosity and concern I ran part of the description on Google and low and behold the item I bought last summer is also being offered on two other sites:


New Hampshire Antique Co-op [NHAC]






And of course on eBay.


I contacted the folks at NHAC and, out of curiosity, offered to buy it and asked for an image at a 45% angle.  They hesitated and I told them why I’m asking.  They were friendly and quick to reply.


The story is that this cooperative has some 200 members who bring items to them to catalogue and photograph, display, warehouse, post on various listing sites, and finally, one way or the other, sell.  At the same time, members can, temporarily or permanently, take back what they bring to them, and sell them themselves without obligation to tell them.  Hence, phantom examples, long sold, can live on for years on various sites in the ether.  Well, that explains it. 


I told NHAC I’ll be writing about this experience and expect they’ll pay more attention as it’s illegal to offer material they no longer have or own.


I then asked NHAC to contact the consignor to hear their version of the facts.  The consignor refused neither would NHAC help to reach them.


That’s too bad.