The LSU Paul M. Hebert Law Center received a collection of maritime art memorabilia, including 29 shipping passports signed by the first 19 U.S. presidents, from lifelong collector Richard J. Dodson.
The collection, known as the Richard J. Dodson Maritime Art Collection, was officially dedicated on March 8 with a ribbon cutting ceremony.
Dodson graduated from the LSU Law Center in 1966 and has practiced maritime law for over 30 years. He has collected maritime memorabilia for over 40 years and developed an extensive collection of artifacts. He said he is proud to share his collection with the University.
“I always planned on giving my collection away as it grew,” Dodson said. “I was just thrilled with LSU said that they would love to have it.”
Dodson began collecting maritime art in 1977 when he bought a ship’s wheel from an antique store in Athens, Greece. Since then, he attended maritime auctions and purchased pieces he found interesting. Dodson became especially interested in ships’ passports and purchased his first passport, signed by George Washington, several years later.
The Mediterranean passport, also known as a ship’s passport, was created in 1795 after the U.S. signed a treaty with Algiers that promised safe passage for U.S. vessels with a passport. The Mediterranean passports were modeled after a similar British document and required the signatures of the president, secretary of state and customs collector, as well as the U.S. seal.
The collection also includes sea letters, which are any government-issued documents held by a merchant fleet to prove its nationality and guarantee protection of the vessel. Sea letters were not as mandatory as Mediterranean passports, but further specified vessels’ national origins and places of destination.
Sea letters were originally written in only three languages, but were soon written in four — French, Spanish, English and Dutch. They were then known as four language sea letters. U.S. sea letters include signatures of the president, secretary of state, and customs collector and the U.S. seal.
Mediterranean passports and sea letters are no longer in use but are highly valued pieces of maritime collections. Dodson donated 11 Mediterranean passports and 18 sea letters to the University, possibly the most complete collection of American shipping passports in the world. Dodson collected documents signed by the first 19 U.S. Presidents, excluding President William Henry Harrison, who was only president for 31 days.
“After I learned more about the different kinds, I would just buy them at auctions over the years,” Dodson said. “One day, I realized I had nearly all of them. I made a big effort to acquire those that I did not have and to acquire as many of the Mediterranean passports as I could.”
Five maritime artifacts are also part of Dodson’s collection, including a ship’s head, Kelvin-Hughes ship’s binnacle, original ship’s telegraph, ship’s wheel and steering station and ship’s bell.
Dodson decided to donate his collection after the Law Center expressed interest in receiving the collection. He retained historian and former chief curator of the Mystic Seaport Museum J. Revell Carr to review the collection and write brief descriptions about the pieces included in the collection. Dodson said Carr was instrumental in putting together the collection for the University.
“He was a big help in making the final selection,” Dodson said. “He did an in-depth analysis and wrote all the descriptions, which were really good. They brought the entire collection to life.”
Dodson said he is almost done with developing his collection because, besides shipping passports signed by President Harrison, his collection is complete. He said he is thrilled that his collection is now at the Law Center.
“Hopefully, it will get students interested in what I consider to be a very important subject, especially in Louisiana,” Dodson said. “I will always be indebted to the Law Center for taking my collection because I’m very attached