Real or Repro?
by Bill Momsen
NEWS FLASH! According to Sea History, Winter
1998-99, a contemporary scrimmed tooth by Robert Weiss sold for an unbelievable
$40,000!! A world record price was also set for antique scrimshaw, when a
polychrome tooth by Edward Burdett sold at a Skinner's auction for $60,250.
Examples of scrimshawed whale's teeth carved by the legendary Frederick Myrick, a crewman aboard the famed whaler Susan, have sold for upwards of $40,000. Perhaps you have glimpsed a scrimshawed whale's tooth in an antique store, flea market or garage sale, or inherited one from your grandfather. Could it be worth that much?
There are three basic steps for determining the
value of scrimshaw: 1) is it ivory or a plastic reproduction? 2) If genuine
ivory, is it a contemporary or antique work? and 3) If antique, how valuable is
The first step can be accomplished easily. Heat a needle or pin (held by pliers) red-hot and attempt to insert it in an inconspicuous place in the specimen. If it melts, it is a plastic reproduction. Real ivory is extremely dense and a poor conductor of heat; the worst result will be a very small black dot.
The second question is not so easily answered. Under 30X magnification, observe how the engraved lines cut across vertical age cracks. If the engraved line is deeper than the natural crack, the work is of recent origin.
The third question is the most difficult. A provenance (history) associated with it could be most helpful. Note that "it was given to my grandfather by an old sailor" is meaningless in this context. If your scrimshaw passes the first two tests, it is time to present it to a qualified appraiser for further evaluation (contact a maritime museum for referrals). The work of each known early artist is unique; experts can frequently identify the identity of the scrimshander. For more details, read the rest of this article.
What is scrimshaw? Although the word has had
many meanings through the years, today it is generally used to describe
hand-carved objects made of (or scenes engraved on) whalebone, whale teeth or
walrus tusks. It is also applied to any sailor-made item such as dippers made
from coconut shells, corset busks (stiffeners) made of baleen, etc. Carving on
bone has been with us since the Stone Age, but the art flourished during the
18th century, particularly as a result of American whaling voyages lasting three
years or more.
In the 19th century the art started to decline aboard ship, but was continued ashore by retired mariners using more highly refined techniques. In 1973 the United States banned the entry of whale products in an attempt to save the endangered species, but contemporary scrimshaw is still being produced by artists. Their work is often displayed in museums, where it stands on its own artistic merit. These pieces are often scrimmed on fossil ivory.
Although many objects were scrimmed aboard the
whaling ship, a decorated whale's tooth is one of the most attractive examples,
and is also widely reproduced today. Originally, the teeth were first soaked in
brine, then scraped smooth with a knife, and finally polished with a piece of
shagreen (shark skin). The fresh tooth was readily carved using a sharp nail or
knifepoint, as fresh teeth are relatively soft, although they harden with age.
The sailor first penciled a sketch on the tooth, often copied from a magazine or book. One of the most popular was Godey's Ladies Book, which featured ladies' fashions of the day. The design was etched into the tooth with a sharp instrument, and various coloring agents rubbed in to highlight the subject.
President John F. Kennedy's fascination with scrimshaw sparked public interest in the subject, which had previously been known only to serious collectors, and many examples of the art rapidly disappeared from circulation. What scrimshaw is available today? Genuine 18th century examples are extremely rare, and pieces carved aboard ship or ashore are difficult to authenticate. Inscribed dates do not necessarily indicate when the specimen was carved, frequently commemorating an earlier event.
Teeth and Tusks
The whale tooth is blunt and sharply curved,
whereas the walrus tusk is longer and has a less severe curvature. The elephant
tusk is blunt also, but is the least curved of the three. It is fairly easy to
distinguish between varieties of complete teeth or tusks, but pieces of these
are more difficult to identify. The cross-section must be carefully studied
(preferably under a microscope) and compared with known samples. Particular
attention must be paid to the grain of the central (pulp) cavity, although only
careful study of many examples will allow the collector to gain familiarity with
1. Static Electricity. Briskly rub the tooth with a piece of silk or flannel. A plastic tooth so treated will readily pick up dust, ashes, or small pieces of paper. Rubbing generates a static electrical charge which will be quickly neutralized by a genuine tooth, a good conductor of electricity. NOTE: This test may not work in high humidity, as water vapor in the air will drain off the electrical charge on a plastic replica. It will also be invalid if the plastic has been treated with anti-static chemical. If a specimen picks up fluff it is definitely a replica; if it doesn't the test is not necessarily conclusive.
2. Physical Inspection. Compare a known genuine article in one hand with the item in question the other. A genuine tooth may feel "colder" than the plastic counterpart due to the greater heat conduction by the natural ivory. (HINT: switch hands every few seconds). "Heft" two pieces similar in size. Real ivory, being denser, will appear to be heavier. NOTE: The overall weight to size ratio ("heaviness") will depend on the depth of the root cavity.
3. Visual Inspection. With a magnifying glass, closely examine the surface of the specimen. Under 3OX magnification (pocket magnifiers this powerful are readily available) very small, perfectly round air bubbles may be seen on the surface near each end, along the bottom edge, and inside the tooth cavity. Pay particular attention to the butt end of the tooth, where the material can be observed in cross-section. Genuine ivory has a definite "grain," whereas plastic will probably be smooth and featureless. Compare the engraved lines to any age cracks in the tooth. Genuine teeth, as they age, will tend to develop small cracks running the long direction of the tooth. The extent of cracking depends on the way the tooth has been cared for. Well cared for specimens may show minimum cracking, but those subjected to extremes of temperature may show more extensive damage. If an engraved line cuts deeper than the age crack it crosses, it has been recently scrimmed.
4. Melt Test: Heat a needle (held by pliers) red hot and attempt to insert it in an inconspicuous place in the specimen. There is no plastic used to copy ivory known at this time which will stand up to this test. Real ivory is extremely dense and a poor conductor of heat; the worst result will be a very small dark dot.
5. Ultraviolet. Genuine and plastic items can be compared under a long wave ultraviolet light, (of the type commonly used to illuminate fluorescent posters) the genuine piece appearing brighter. This test may not always work, as the difference between the two is not great.
X-Ray. Dental x-rays may show the pulp cavity of the real tooth extending
almost its entire length, whereas this feature will not be seen in plastic
pieces. Ordinary dental negatives are too small; the tests can be better
performed by an oral surgeon, who is equipped to handle larger sizes. Some
experimentation and controlled development times are necessary.
If you are fortunate enough to
acquire a genuine piece, it is best preserved by keeping it in a stable
environment - avoid extremes of heat and cold, particularly rapid changes of
temperature. Do not attempt to wash or bleach it - the yellow color is an
indication of age. It is best not to make any attempt at cleaning. The use of
any cleaning agent or solvent may dissolve the tobacco juice, tar, or whatever
substance was available to highlight the engraving. Moisture should be avoided;
water can readily damage old ivory.
A piece of genuine ivory will tend to dry out and develop cracks. It has been suggested that every six months or so, your pieces should be wrapped in a piece of soft cloth saturated with mineral oil or glycerin. They are best displayed in glass-enclosed cabinet or bell jar, in which a small vessel of water has been placed to humidify the surrounding air.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum offers an extensive list of "fakeshaw", compiled by Stuart M. Frank, PhD.
These days, "scrimshaw" is taken to refer to all kinds of carving and engraving on ivory, bone, sea shells, antler and cow horn. However, in its original context as a traditional shipboard pastime of 19th-century mariners, scrimshaw refers to the indigenous, occupationally-rooted art form of the whalers, the defining characteristic of which is the use of the hard byproducts of the whale fishery itself – sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen (erroneously called whalebone), and skeletal whale bone, often used often in combination with other "found" materials. The origin and etymology of the term scrimshaw is unknown and has been disputed, but various forms of it – such as scrimsshander, skrimshonting, and skrimshank – began to appear in American whalemen’s parlance in the early 19th century. The term originally referred to the production of sailors’ hand-tools and practical implements, such as seam rubbers, fids, belaying pins, and thole pins, mostly made for the ship during working hours; but it soon came to signify objects made by whalemen–and, to a lesser extent, by tars in the naval and merchant services– primarily for their own recreation and amusement, intended mostly as mementos for folks at home.
"Hard byproducts" of whaling were flotsam and jetsam of the fishery – parts of the whale that had little or no commercial value and thus could be given over to the sailors for their own pleasurable diversions. Sperm whale teeth could be polished to a high gloss, then engraved with pictures to which lampblack and colored pigments could be applied. Or they could be carved in relief or in full round, to produce sculptural forms, human and animal figures, finials, handles, tools, inlay, and all manner of ornaments for wooden boxes, canes, and other objects.