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Floats ahoy: Gems from a rare collection go up for sale

More than 70 glass Japanese fishing floats collected by the late James L. Watson will be sold to benefit the North Lincoln County Historical Museum.

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Chris Melton, director of the North Lincoln County Historical Museum, examines one of the glass floats that will be for sale. Photo courtesy of Explore Lincoln City.
Chris Melton, director of the North Lincoln County Historical Museum, examines one of the glass floats that will be for sale. Photo courtesy of Explore Lincoln City.

In the coming days, 70-odd people will have the opportunity to purchase fishing floats from a collection of some of the rarest and most sought-after of the glass collectibles in the United States.

 The sale, a fundraiser for the North Lincoln County Historical Museum (NLCHM), features about 77 floats from the renowned collection of the late James L. Watson. Watson, who died in 2002, was one of the world’s leading collectors of Japanese fishing floats. His wife donated a significant portion of his collection to the historical museum last year.

 “This really is a rare opportunity,” said Nick Simpson, museum accessions volunteer, friend of Watson’s, and a fellow collector. “This is like finding lost treasure. Watson was really well-known in the collecting community. To have parts of his collection come up for sale, that’s just unheard of.”

 The floats come in a multitude of sizes, shapes and colors, the so-called “rolling pins” among the most in demand; a green grooved globe, bearing the highest price tag, is appraised at $5,500, said Chris Melton, museum director. “The majority of the floats have been appraised at between $15 and $150.”

  Each float will come with a certificate of authenticity certifying that is from Watson’s collection, Simpson said.

A selection of the floats that will be for sale May 31 and June 1. Photo courtesy of Explore Lincoln City.
A selection of the floats that will be for sale May 31 and June 1. Photo courtesy of Explore Lincoln City.

  Simpson was part of the crew that helped bring Watson’s floats – about 400 — to the museum last spring.

  “These floats were the floats he had displayed in his home in Hawaii,” Simpson said. “When he moved over here and was building his home in Pacific City, he put all these floats in storage in a barn and they were in boxes — some with postage still on them from Hawaii – in this barn for 25 years.

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  “Some of these floats have never been seen by anyone other than Jim and his family,” Simpson said. “We are told that collectors are coming from all over to this first sale.”

 Glass fishing floats have a rich history, dating back to 1844, when Christopher Faye in Norway invented them, revolutionizing the fishing industry, Melton said. Japanese glassmakers began creating their own unique styles around 1900, and due to ocean currents, the oldest and rarest floats often washed ashore on the beaches of Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii.

 In one of the several presentations Watson made in Lincoln City, he noted that when glass floats revolutionized the fishing industry, they also revolutionized beachcombing. His 2000 presentation at the museum can be seen on video here.  

  According to a museum press release on the float sale, “Jim found his first float while walking on the beach near his home in Hawaii — a large lavender float the size of a basketball. Jim’s life was changed, and he found his calling: to seek out the rarest glass fishing floats he could find, and share their beauty and history with the world.

“Jim later moved from Hawaii to Neskowin, where he continued to beachcomb along Oregon’s sandy beaches, an historical hotspot for Japanese floats. Throughout his life, he traveled extensively to Japan where he befriended locals, fishermen, glass makers, and collectors. He also gave talks and presentations, teaching people about the history of these unique objects, which functioned as both important tools and exquisite pieces of art. His collection represents the widely different styles and methods that makers experimented with to create floats indispensable to historic fishing industries.”

The James L. Watson Glass Fishing Float Collection at the North Lincoln County Historical Museum. Photo courtesy of Chris Hager, Board of Directors, Feb. 17, 2024.
The James L. Watson Glass Fishing Float Collection at the North Lincoln County Historical Museum. Photo courtesy of Chris Hager, Board of Directors, Feb. 17, 2024.

The museum originally planned to allow guests to purchase floats on a “first-come, first-serve basis,” Melton said. But the interest was so great, there was concern the floats would be scooped up by only a few.

“We wanted to make this as equitable as possible,” Melton said. The sale will now begin on Friday, May 31, with a “Meet and Greet” and “Viewing of the Floats” from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. A lottery ticket drawing will be held from 1 to 1:30 p.m. Buyers will be admitted at 1:30 p.m., with those holding the lowest ticket number admitted first. Floats will be limited one to a person. The sale will continue on Saturday, June 1, again with entry by numbered ticket. All remaining floats after 2 p.m. will be available for sale with no limit.  

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 More information on Watson’s collection can be found here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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