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For sale: Rare snuff box from Dundee’s bygone whaling days

Auctioneer Nick Burns with the rare snuff box.
Auctioneer Nick Burns with the rare snuff box.

An unusual memento of Dundee’s once thriving whaling industry will go under the hammer next month.

The super rare snuff box, made for one of the city’s biggest whale-catching firms, was uncovered during a local house clearance.

According to the inscription, it was presented to a man, possibly a writer, called George Milne for his “zeal and assiduity in promoting the interests” of the Dundee Whale Fishing Company.

The silver presentation box, made in Birmingham, dates back to 1829.

It is being offered for sale by Perth auctioneers Lindsay Burns and Co.

Director Nick Burns said: “It looks like Mr Milne was helping to promote the interests and values of this whaling company to, perhaps, friends and associates.

“He maybe managed to secure a lot of business for the firm, and the powers-that-be presented him with this snuff box as a way of showing their gratitude.”

The whaling ship Scotia leaving Dundee.

Mr Burns said: “Snuff boxes of that period were, on the whole, a lot smaller. This would have been quite a sought-after item and its size shows how well the company was doing, and how much they valued Mr Milne’s service.”

The gift was presented when Scotland’s whaling industry was at its peak.

It was a vitally important sector to Dundee for more than 130 years.

Whale oil was used for lighting, soap and clothing. It was of particular interest to Dundee because it was used in jute production, to soften the jute fibres before weaving.

At the height of demand, a whalebone would change hands on the quayside for up to £3,000 a tonne.

A whaler leaving Dundee.

The industry had a wider impact on the city, with memoirs from the early 19th Century noting that fur-booted Inuits – then known as Eskimos – became a regular sight in the city centre.

By the early 20th Century, much cheaper mineral oil began to take the place of whale oil and Arctic whaling came to a close in Dundee at the outbreak of the First World War.

A second, older snuff box was also found during the house clearance at Dundee.

The piece from 1780 belong to a city writer known only as D Robson.

The Scottish Provincial silver oval shaped box is unusual because it has two compartments.

Mr Burns said: “We see a lot of snuff boxes, but these ones are particularly rare and in excellent condition.”

Both boxes are each expected to make a three-figure sum at the sale on September 4 and 5.

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