Galapagos Penguin

By Abby Salzberg

When John Jacob Astor perished on the ‘Titanic’ in 1912, his 20 year-old son Vincent inherited an estate valued at $75 million.

Despite his father’s unfortunate experience, Vincent enjoyed adventures at sea, mostly aboard his second yacht Nourmahal – the world’s finest private yacht of its day – delivered from Germany in 1928.

Two years later Vincent, with an illustrious and intrepid group of New York naturalists, set sail from Miami, arriving at the Galapagos Islands one month later. The Nourmahal returned, (as the Beagle and Charles Darwin had a century earlier) with a bounty of botanical specimens and various live fauna including reef fish, tortoises, iguanas and a pair of rare Galapagos penguins.

Vincent Astor had a fascination with penguins.

They appeared on his personal stationary and a silvered chrome penguin hood ornament graced his favorite automobile, so it was fitting to commemorate the voyage with a presentation Galapagos penguin statuette, naturalistically modeled by sculptor James Lippit Clark for Gorham in sterling silver and signed in facsimile on the base by all his appreciative shipmates.

Galapagos Penguin 2

This wonderful little piece of Astor history will cross the block this coming weekend in Heritage’s Oct. 5-7 Gentleman Collector Auction, and should command more than $10,000.

While Vincent Astor was far from a modern humanitarian, he dedicated part of his time and fortune to preservation, science and social reform while maintaining a luxurious lifestyle largely outside the glare of social events. When Brooke Astor entered his life after her second husband passed away, she helped harmonize these two halves of Vincent, carrying on his philanthropic reform efforts from her position as the ultimate New York socialite.

This humble but compelling statuette represents a pivotal stage in the Astor family dynasty’s shift from materialism and pure capitalism toward the financial decisions that led to their eventual decline.

Learning this piece’s history, I quickly realized it is worth much more than its weight in silver.

Examining the signatures of the crewman, I now have a glimpse into their adventures and after understanding what Vincent Astor went through to get this item I feel I have a glimpse into this man’s true nature; he is your typical American dream man on the surface, but this statuette is representative of what lies beneath that beautiful, superficial image.

Vincent Astor was a passionate, yet flawed, man who failed to find a way to reconcile his love of New York and love of his fortune, inevitably destroying his estate.

Holding this small piece of history, I understood a bit better the gravity of its value and the man behind it.

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