Monday, July 25, 2011

Solving the Ivory Mystery

QUESTION: I have a piece of scrimshaw which has been in my family for years.  I’d like to know how I can determine if it’s authentic or not. On the tooth are two American flags with 23 stars.

ANSWER: Trying to figure out whether a piece of scrimshaw is real or not isn’t that hard. Telling the difference between ivory, bone and plastic requires some close inspection. The high value of scrimshaw due to its rarity and artistic craftsmanship foster fakes.

Ivory, bone, and plastic each have unique characteristics which differentiate them from each other. Using a magnifying glass, look to see if the surface of the piece is smooth or lined. Plastic fakes are usually smooth. True ivory, on the other hand, has either crosshatched or parallel lines, depending on the type. Ivory pieces may also have delicate wavy lines.

How the ivory was originally cut is another indication of its authenticity. In the early 19th century, scrimshanders (those who carved scrimshaw) cross-cut their pieces. Newer ones cut theirs parallel.

The most popular and well-known form of scrimshaw came from whale ivory. Whalemen incised designs into the teeth of whales and often carved other pieces and whalebone into useful objects for their wives and girlfriends. Genuine whale ivory appears whiter and smoother than most other types, though whalemen polished even whale’s teeth since ivory isn’t usually smooth in its natural form.

As the whale trade reached across the Pacific, scrimshanders gained access to elephant ivory, which, unlike whale ivory, has a distinct parallel grain. However, if the lines are perfectly parallel, chances are that its fake ivory, made from ground up bone. Another type they used was walrus ivory which has dark spots on its surface.

Other indications of a piece of scrimshaw’s authenticity are the little mistakes and corrections made by the scrimshander as he handcarved it. Some modern fakers use computers and tattoo needles to create their designs, based on those on old scrimshaw pieces.

Those pieces that appear pitted are usually bone. And while not as valuable as scrimshaw on ivory, the craftsmanship is the same, giving scrimshaw on bone a value of its own.

The oldest test for ivory is to try inserting a pin, heated to red-hot, into someplace on the piece that is out of sight. If the hot pin dents the surface, the piece is plastic. If it smokes, the piece is bone.

Another way to test a piece is to look carefully for a single seam that goes all around the piece, indicating where the two molds containing the plastic piece come together. The surface will also appear much lighter in both weight and color which is consistent all over. Ivory tends to vary in color from both piece to piece and on the same piece. Some people claim that by holding a piece of scrimshaw to a person’s cheek, it will feel cool if ivory and warm if plastic.

To date a piece of scrimshaw look for identifying characteristics, in this case two American flags, each with 23 stars. The 23-star flag was only in use from 1820-1822, thus giving a clue to the date of the piece’s creation.

Read more about collecting scrimshaw.

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