Pathfinder of the Seas

pathfinder of the seas

A 1930 first-print edition of Pathfinder of the Seas. It’s still in good condition even after all these years.

My wife and I have downsized twice in the past eleven years, and I have chosen to curtail my collecting hobby. Sometimes, though, I encounter an item that I just can’t pass up. The item doesn’t have to be “golden”, or cause a “Ka-Ching” to sound in my ears or dollar signs to dance in front of my eyes. It simply has to strike an emotional chord.

Such a chord was struck recently while I browsed through a “Friends of the Library” book sale in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia. There were a few thousand books offered for sale, stacked high on makeshift shelves. The room had an “old book” smell: slightly musty and acidic with a hint of vanilla. Over the years I’ve come to love that smell; to me it represents treasures to be found. You see, I collect items that most estate-salers and dealers overlook: old books and 78 rpm records.

In the History section, I found a copy of The Pathfinder of the Seas: The Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury. Maury acquired his nickname for his contributions to charting ocean lanes for ships passing at sea. The book was a 1930 first edition, published by Garrett & Massie of Richmond, VA. The green-cloth hard cover was in very good condition and the spine and binding were in good shape. But, it was not the book itself or Maury’s standing in history that gave me goosebumps; it was my tenuous connection to the man and his family.

Dr. Maury (January 14, 1806 – February 1, 1873) was a Director of the U.S. Naval Observatory, an oceanographer, meteorologist, cartographer, and author. He was also a Commodore in the Confederate Navy. When the Civil War broke out, he left the U.S. Navy to stand with his Virginia comrades. After the War he accepted a position as Chairman of the physics department at the Virginia Military Institute.

maury steinway piano

Maury purchased a Steinway piano in 1869, and it was used by his family until they sold it in 1912.

In 1869, Maury purchased a Steinway parlor (aka “square grand”) piano for his family. The piano was used by the Maury family until about 1912, when it was sold to the Christian family of Lexington, VA. In 1991, the Rev. William Christian, whose mother had bought the piano, discovered it under a porch, where it had lived for decades. Rev. Christian offered the instrument to VMI, who determined to have the piano restored for their museum. A VMI alumnus provided the funding for the restoration, and I was hired to do the job.

steinway piano disassembled

The piano was completely disassembled; thousands of parts were numbered and labeled.

The project took more than a year. The piano was completely disassembled; thousands of parts were numbered and labeled. Unusual configurations were photographed. Strings were sent to a string maker for duplication. Action felts and cloths were painstakingly removed and replaced. The case veneer was repaired, and brass case parts were re-plated.  A new tuning pin block was installed, and the bridges and soundboard repaired. The case was refinished, and then the piano was re-strung, the action re-assembled, and the piano regulated and tuned. Twenty-five years later, it still sits in the VMI Museum.

piano parts

A closer look at some of the parts within the piano.

In the course of the restoration, the folks at VMI generously shared the correspondence between Maury and Steinway regarding shipping and other details. During the year I spent with the project, I developed a fondness for Maury, his family, and his piano. When I found Pathfinder of the Seas at the book sale, I felt I had renewed my connection to the piano and a year of my life.


Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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