Setting a hand on the old rail gun, which graced the top rail of an English ship some time around 1790, Joe Vallejo smiled thinking how much about it he didn't know.
At the back of his gallery across the street from the Balboa Bay Club & Resort, Vallejo tilted the brass barrel up slightly on its hinge. What he surmised from history was that the blunderbuss, 42 inches long and mounted on a wooden base, lived in the Tower of London between maritime journeys and probably saw a battle or two, or maybe more.
"And here it is — what, 200 years later — sitting in here," said Vallejo, who opened his eponymous gallery in 1972. "So if that could talk, it would be pretty amazing to look out and see what it was looking through there, firing at."
Plenty of things in the Vallejo Gallery, 1610 W. Coast Hwy., meant life or death at some point. Among the artifacts that line the cluttered walls and glass cases are a U.S. Navy 1-pound gun from 1898, complete with original shells, and a privateer's letter of mark for British ships in the early 19th century — without which, the crew could be hanged as pirates.
For the last 41 years, though, those items and others have simply been Vallejo's life. And this Saturday, he's finally ready to move them out.
The gallery, which has offered all its stock at a heavy discount for the last few months, will close at 5 p.m. Saturday. At least, that's the official time — the owner is more than willing to keep the lights on if demand requires it.
"If the place is mobbed, we'll keep selling until everyone leaves," Vallejo said.
When the venue finally shuts down, he plans to keep his business going online; the remaining items will move to a warehouse, with possible opportunities for occasional public viewing. But Vallejo, who has surrounded himself for decades with ocean paintings and maritime memorabilia, is eager to spend more time by the real ocean across the street.
By now, he estimates that he's sold off 80% of his stock — though a first-time visitor might never guess that, given how many items still pack the floor and walls. On a recent afternoon, customers milled around while a painting outside, featuring a group of pirates storming the beach, declared "Everything Goes — Carry Away the Treasure."
Jonathan Levin, who lives in Malibu, said he's bought many model ships and other items from the gallery over the last 15 years. He called Vallejo's business one of a kind.
"That's part of what's so sad about this," Levin said. "This is absolutely unique and irreplaceable. So it's sort of a sad loss for the community, but Joe will sure continue on in a different form."
Vallejo launched his endeavor in the early 1970s after meeting a Scottish man who had moved to the United States. The man worked as a "picker" who salvaged parts of ships that were slated to be destroyed, and Vallejo took his first plane ride to Scotland to help bring back a load from the shipyard.
After a brief period selling out of his home — "We used to have people pull up in limousines," he recalled — Vallejo moved his growing stock into the space on West Coast Highway. For 11 years in the 1980s and '90s, he operated an antique shop nearby, but eventually let that endeavor go to pursue his main passion.
For all the maritime remnants he displays on the shelves, Vallejo considers the backbone of his gallery to be the paintings that line several of the walls. Over the years, he's stocked works by Jean Renoir, Eugene Boudin, Norman Rockwell and others. (His own attempts at art, which he laughingly compared to a 2-year-old's, are not on view.)
Vallejo, who noted that he hasn't gotten a bad check since the gallery opened, expressed thanks to his clientele.
"Here we are, 41 years later, ready to call it a day," he said. "It's been a great run. It's been super exciting."
Where: 1610 W. Coast Hwy., Newport Beach
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday
Information: (949) 642-7945 or http://www.vallejogallery.com