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The Art of Scrimshaw
by Jim Romeo


Once the art form of whaling seafarers, collectors' interest in scrimshaw is on the rise

"The whales we caught were divided, the captain receiving one out of every three and the sailors getting the other two as their share. We were paid at the end of a voyage. As we were returning home after I had been on the sea for over four years, I decided to try something else so another sailor and I left the ship (and with it our profits from the whales) on the west coast of Mexico. We had only a little money and long pearl-handled knives"

Wrote William F. Holt in a 1938 interview for the Federal Writer's Project on his reminiscences as a whaling seafarer of the 19th century

While a whale hunting seafarers possessions may feel incomplete with only "a little money and long pearl-handled knives", they failed to mention something else they had - many hours of solitude on the open sea. A perfect environment for an age-old art form of our maritime heritage - scrimshaw.

Scrimshaw is an art form of carvings or scratching in the teeth of whales and walruses. Most original scrimshaw was created by 19th century sailors and whalemen, though some was created earlier in the 17th and 18th centuries. The art form has prevailed since, and scrimshaw artists are extant in today's world, however, much of their carving is done in plastic resins and fossilized ivory. There has been a ban on actual whale's teeth and ivory from entering into the United States.

The origin of the word Scrimshaw is uncertain, but we know that this art has been practiced since revolutionary times. It did not, however, receive wide spread recognition until President John F. Kennedy, an enthusiastic collector, brought Scrimshaw to the public eye. The American Whaling Fleet has ceased to exist. However, this art is being carried on by a few American artisans. Scrimshaw is the indigenous art form of the American Whaleman. In his idle hours of cruising for whale, he devoted himself to fashioning articles and jewelry of whale ivory.

Today, the ivory trade in the United States has been reduced to "pre-embargo ivory" - ivory that was brought into the states before sanctions were set in place; hippo ivory - which is taken from animals that have been culled from the herds or that have killed human population; and fossilized ivory - ivory from ancient walrus and mastodons.

It is very difficult to tell on the surface, whether a scrimshaw carving is real or a fake, however a well known test is to insert a heated needle into an inconspicuous part of the artifact. If the needle burns or smokes (you can tell the smell), it is a plastic resin. One may also examine the tusk up close under a 30X magnification and see if the depth of the carvings are deeper than the natural striations of the tooth or tusk. If so, it is a contemporary piece. In determining the authenticity of a piece, one should attempt any of these examinations, but also seek out a provenance from the selling party as to the piece's origins. In addition, a smart dealer or collector will insist that the seller stand behind the sale, should there be later doubt that the piece is authentic. Avoid buying from any seller reluctant to do so.

A Reflection Of Our Maritime Heritage

By the middle of the 17th century whaling from the land was established in America. Its centers, at first on Long Island and Cape Cod, shifted to Nantucket and then New Bedford, the greatest whaling port in the world until the decline of the industry.

The invention of the harpoon containing an explosive head may be said to have inaugurated modern whaling. Besides insuring the whale's immediate death this type of harpoon can now also shoot compressed air into the whale, so that it will not sink before it can be secured. The development of the factory ship, equipped to take on board and completely process whales caught by the smaller chasers, increased safety and enhanced the ability to catch the larger blue whale. It also allowed for the use of all parts of the whale; formerly only the blubber and head could be procured, and the job of flensing from the side of the ship was a hazardous one.

By 1925 the first floating factory was sent to the Antarctic regions; that innovation led to the greatest expansion in the history of whaling. In 1930 the modern whaling industry reached its zenith, with 6 shore stations, 41 floating factories, and 232 whale catchers in the Antarctic regions, of which 3 stations, 27 factory ships, and 147 catchers were Norwegian and 2 stations, 27 floating factories, and 68 catchers were British. During World War II most of the world's whaling fleet was lost, but afterwards Norway, Britain, and Japan (which had started Antarctic expeditions in 1935) soon reestablished their prewar positions, and in addition the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, and South Africa appeared in the Antarctic regions for the first time.

The main whalers are now the Japanese and the Russians, the traditional Norwegian dominance having been curtailed by the high cost of labor and supplies, as well as by the diminishing use of whale oil and by-products in Western Europe. In 1932-33 the first attempts were made to regulate and restrict the catch by international agreement. After World War II the International Whaling Commission was formed in Washington, D.C., by 17 nations, including all those operating in the Antarctic regions. The commission, which regulates most of the world's whaling activity, began in the 1960s to limit the number and species of whales that could be hunted. By 1988 a moratorium on all commercial whaling was put into effect. Exceptions were made for native peoples who traditionally had hunted whales and used their meat as a major part of their diet. However, these regulations are not adhered to by all nations, and the whale continues to be overhunted. The blue whale, once the mainstay of the American whaling industry, numbered less than 1,500 in 1990, and other species have also been seriously depleted. Whales continue to be killed for scientific purposes as well. Given the scarce supply, and a growing demand, prices for scrimshaw are on the rise - though there's something for every collector's price range.

The Broad Array Of Pricing Awaits The Scrimshaw Collector

Values of scrimshaw are generally in the $500 range up to $50,000. In late 1997, an 1829 sperm engraved whale tooth from the ship Susan of Nantucket was sold at auction for a record $50,600. At the same auction earlier teeth sold for as little as $500. At another auction we found a genuine scrimshaw whale's tooth sold for $850 - approximately $100 above its reserve. Another 7 ?" whale's tooth sold for $950.

What are other items selling for? We searched the internet for nautical items sold. We found the following: 19th century figurehead, $6500: Shadow box model, $1600 ; Gimballed barometer in need of restoration, $; 1830 globe by J. Wilson Co., Albany, $1500 (est. $1500-2500); #59: Mid 19th century valentine, $; Swift (yarn winder) made of whale ivory, baleen, bone and wood $6750.

We delved further into price and found some pieces available at Internet auctions like a carved snuff bottle that stands 2 1/2 inches tall with a nickel silver top. The piece was being offered at a minimum bid of $20, yet there were no bids placed with less than 8 hours to go.

At the same auction was an early European snuff box, with a long inscription in an old German dialect, and a hand carved scene of two workers at a table making something from about 1830. With less than 10 hours left, the piece had commanded $135.

Don't let this list scare you if the prices sound high. There are many nautical collectibles for sale that are much less. Many 20th century collectibles are available for under $100. Books, menus, and paper collectibles are routinely in the $50-$100 range.

There are a limited number of dealers who specialize in nautical collectibles. Some may specialize in only one area, while others several different areas. Perhaps one limiting factor is the geographical locale and its proximity to salvage sites, wrecks, and private collectors with an interest in these types of collectibles. All tend to be located in coastal or maritime regions where the interest and the supply of these types of antiques and collectibles is more present.

The Wooden Sailing Ships era is the most appealing period of nautical history among collectors" according to Garry R. Allison, a nautical dealer and owner of the Hawaii-based Ye Olde Ship Store. "It was a very romantic time in history when every day was an adventure into the unknown. The vessels were beautiful to behold although danger lurked around every turn. The tall-tales of those days among seafarers included pirates, sirens and sea monsters. A common thread that is found in the fantasies of old and young alike, crossing every generation since. Even modern stories found today bear a striking resemblance to the feeling prevalent in that era ."

Natuical antiques are in demand in select communities and regions of collectors. " If
I had to list some of the more important items I would include Sextants, Ship Logs and pre-1800 Scrimshaw. " A sailor named Frederick Myrick from the whaling ship "Susan" was the most famous scrimshander from that era. [and is in great demand] " adds Allison. " Many collections have been spread-out as heirlooms and sold in estate auctions to the public. But we see many collectors of antique scrimshaw that are still actively attempting to add to their collection."

Caveat Emptor (Buyer Beware)

One thing any collector or dealer should be concerned about is that of fakes and forgeries. Scrimshaw is commonly sold at shows and fairs, however it is not authentic. "Antique whale's teeth are commonly reproduced. Most are properly sold as reproductions, but there is a thriving business in antique whale's teeth that are possibly being misrepresented to the public. Usually these fake scrimshaw pieces are found in garage sales and flea markets on the east and west coast. The vendors are careful not to define the items by saying they are "real or fake," this would constitute fraud if it were misrepresented. Instead they are vague and depend on the "buyer beware laws" that release them from any responsibility."

There are a few things you can do to detect a fake. "A good sign that an antique whale's tooth is fake is finding one with dates, ship names and signatures of sailors, priced cheaply" explains Wilson. "In the past these pieces could be tested by an individual with the 'hot needle method' (plastic melts). Now these pieces are being reproduced in Jurastone, a high tempered polymer. We talk to many victims of these excellent reproductions that end up getting what they paid for."

When it comes to investment quality, Wilson emphasizes quality. "No doubt, antique scrimshaw is one of most sought after items from that era" explains Wilson. "Collectors should be certain about what they are buying. In other words, it must not be a reproduction. But in addition, they should consider the condition of the item. "Condition" is a key factor to determine the value of an antique."


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