The specialist field of vintage navigational instruments attracts a comparatively small but knowledgeable group of collectors. There are exquisite examples in most maritime museums, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh owns a Dutch cross-staff, dated 1684, while the Peabody Collection of navigational instruments in the USA is among the finest in the world. Early sextants are extremely well made utilising mahogany, ebony, ivory and brass and mid-18th century examples particularly by well regarded makers such as Adams, Ramsden or Dollond fetch prices of £1,000 upwards. Period chronometers by Le Roy, Frodsham or
Dent (Edward John Dent was the designer of London’s famous Big Ben, the Great Bell of the striking clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster) are reasonably common but will still command prices of between £1,500 and £2,500 while those that come with provenance linking them to specific ships or personalities are far more expensive. One example, connected with a named Royal Navy vessel, was auctioned for £60,000 at Bonhams in 2014. For the novice collector of such instruments, the humble hand-held mariner’s compass can be found for under £100 with good condition specimens reaching £500. Many of these quite decorative brass compasses were built into mahogany or walnut housings with glass facings and contained a socket to accommodate a candle for night use.
As with most items of military or historic significance there are considerable numbers of reproduction instruments available which vary in quality at far more reasonable prices although it is considered wise to buy with care. For original items it is best to contact established dealers such as landandseacollection.com in the USA or by attending reputable auctioneers such as Bonhams, Christie’s and Southeby’s in the UK.