First and foremost, scrimshaw is fine art, and art has value for its own sake. Also, unlike painting, scrimshaw has often been done on a unique canvas of ivory, a canvas that is far more valuable than any foundation of stretched cloth or linen. Also, the handcrafting of srimshaw is part of American heritage. It is the oldest of all North American art forms. No other art form in America has a longer history. No other expression of art has such significance or influence on the American spirit.
Scrimshaw is a word caught up in controversy. Many say it comes from an old English nautical slang expression meaning "to waste time." But others have supported origins for the word that range from America to China. While the word’s origin may always be debated, it is a style of art and craft generally described as the incising, engraving, carving or fashioning of primarily ivory and bone (but may also include other natural and man-made materials) into works of art or other decorative or useful articles.
A scrimshander is a person who creates works of scrimshaw.
Archeologists in Eastern North America have found works of art comparable to scrimshaw made by native peoples from land and marine ivory and bone that date back as far as 100-200 AD, but it was the Yankee whalers of the 1800’s who are actually attributed with creating, popularizing and naming the art form, making it a traditionally American art form
With long periods of time on their hands between one whale and the next on what could be as much as three years or more at sea, Yankee sailors took up the art form as a way to pass the time. But at sea, the only ivory and bone available to them were from the whales they hunted. This nautical expression of the art form soon passed from ship to ship and was welcomed and practiced by whalers and sailors from numerous countries around the globe. It also wasn’t long before scrimshaw was introduced to coastal native cultures including those in Alaska, who immediately embraced the art form. Because of it nautical heritage, scrimshaw has forever after been associated as an art form started and practiced by whalemen, sailors or others associated with nautical pursuits. Unfortunately, this is an lamentable slight to the Eastern North American cultures who are also credited, however grudgingly at times, with working in the art form.
The answer is both no and yes. This is because ivory carries different levels of restriction depending on the type.
–Prehistoric mammoth and mastodon ivory are completely legal and carry no restrictions. In the U.S., anyone can dig up mammoth and mastodon ivory as long as they have a permit and the material comes from non-archeological sites.
-Modern wart hog, wild hog and elk "whistler" ivory (the top two canine teeth) are also unrestricted.
-Modern (or white) walrus ivory is generally less than a hundred years old. White walrus ivory can only be purchased from a native Alaskan and the ivory must also have some form of native work on it, carved or scrimshawed. It is not legal to buy or sell any unworked fresh walrus ivory. The exception to this are tusks with a copper tag attached that have a serial number on the tag. These tusks are from an Alaska state culling program from the 1960's and they are legal to buy, sell and trade across state lines in their natural, unworked form as long as the tag is there.
-Fossil, fossilized, (ancient) walrus ivory generally ranges from 300 to 3,000 years in age and is most often excavated from the Alaskan permafrost in August and September of each year. Only native peoples are allowed to dig for fossil walrus ivory on their lands. Once purchased from them it can be sold and resold across state lines without restriction.
–Ivory from African elephants can no longer be imported into the US per the "CITES" treaty; however, any elephant ivory already within the US prior to June 9, 1989 is legal to buy and sell within a state unless prohibited by specific state law. Interstate sale of elephant ivory products is no longer permitted. Check your state laws to determine if buying and selling elephant ivory products is legal within your state.
–The sale of whale teeth and bone are tightly restricted. According to The Endangered Species Act of 1973 and USFWS officials, any sale or offer to sell whale teeth or bone carries a $12,000 fine - per act - and possible imprisonment. All other marine mammals and their body parts are considered protected under the "Marine Mammal Protection Act," and similar restrictions apply. The legal sale of sperm whale teeth falls into the following three catagories according to articles of The Endangered Species Act of 1973 under SEC.10, (f)(1)(A)(ii), (B); (f)(6)(D); and (h)(1)(A).
1) Antique - is any tooth that has been determined to be 100 years old or older, dating back from 1972 (1872 or older). This ivory is legal to buy and sell across state lines in any form. If you purchase an antique or pre-banned whale’s tooth, you should expect that the seller will include a Certificate of Exemption for the tooth and/or a Certification of Subsequent Seller/Shipper/Exporter. These required federal forms prove that the tooth has been certified as legal for resale and meets the requirements for resale in the U.S.
2) Pre-Act Teeth - are teeth that date from 1872 to 1972 and are covered by a U.S. government exemption certificate. These teeth are legal to buy and sell if they are accompanied by a U.S. government exemption certificate, but cannot be shipped across state lines in their raw form (they must be carved, engraved or scrimshawed).
3) Any other teeth that were in the country prior to 1972 and not covered by an exemption certificate - These teeth must at the very least be accompanied by a notarized statement from the seller stating that they were in his/her possession, in this country, prior to the 1972 moratorium. These teeth cannot be sent across state lines for commercial resale. The scrimshander must buy these teeth, work on them, and sell them only within his/her state of residence and then only if such purchase and sale is legal under the laws of his/her state.
–The only completely illegal ivory at the present time is Indian elephant; this animal is considered highly endangered because there are few to none left in the wild. They are almost totally zoo or circus-bred animals, or are domesticated beasts of burden in India.
Many people are fooled by ivory fakes (also dubbed “fakeshaw”) and quality reproductions. The fact that even a few dealers are sometimes fooled, and then represent such items as genuine ivory, makes understanding the truth even more confusing.
While most faux ivory is made from molded polymer (plastic), not all substitutes are plastic. One non-plastic ivory substitute is Galolith. It is actually a curd product that has been around since the 1920s. Substitutes are often enhanced with added materials during the casting process to give them the color, grain, patina, and weight of ivory. Scrimshaw designs can be in the mold used for the casting or they may be machine or hand cut into the hardened plastic after casting. Designs are then usually hand-colored as part of the finishing process.
One type of imitation ivory is called “French ivory.” It is really just a fancy name for celluloid plastic. French ivory looks very much like ivory, yellows with age like ivory, and is susceptible to staining from perfumes and body oils. Unlike real ivory, however, it has a grain pattern that is wider and more consistent than real ivory and it melts if exposed to heat or flame. French ivory is synonymous with several trade names including Genuine French Ivory, Ivoire De Paris, Ivorette, Depose Ivor-Tone France, Ivorine, Ivorite, and Pyralin.
Imitation scrimshaw whale teeth are usually not exact duplicates of original antique pieces. They often have a scene from one genuine tooth inscribed on one side and a scene from a different genuine tooth on the reverse. Many faux ivory teeth also have a lot of writing or banners on them, but when you consider that most antique scrimshawed teeth had little to no writing on them, you begin to look at such pieces with a more suspect eye. Collectors should understand that fakeshaw items are valued only for their decorative appeal. They have no real value as art or as historical objects.
Another type of faux ivory is a Chinese mass-produced import that is actually two machined sections of cow bone clamshelled together to imitate a sperm whale tooth. These pieces have a noticeable seam line, over the tip and down both sides, but this seam is often camouflaged by a scrimshaw pattern or design worked directly over the seam. Sometimes, a fake root cavity is also designed into these pieces. But if the raw edge of the skirt is viewed under a 10 to 30 power pocket magnifier, it will reveal the identifying properties peculiar to bone.
Some companies have also produced faux ivory scrimshawed walrus tusks, cribbage boards, and other items. If not clearly marked as reproductions, these items have also been good enough to fool many people into thinking they are real ivory items.
Ivory is actually the natural tooth of an animal. Teeth continue to grow throughout an animal's lifetime and as a result, they have a noticeable structure and "growth lines" (called Schreger lines in elephant ivory). Look at the piece carefully under a magnifying glass. Under a 10x magnifier, elephant and mammoth ivory will have visible striations or grain that often show up as diamond or "V" shapes or cross-hatching on the surface or edges of polished ivory. Bone lacks such "V" shaped striations. Under magnification bone usually shows minuscule circular or oval shaped dots on cut surfaces. These dots are the tiny vessels that once supplied the living bone. Also, bone exhibits grain-like parallel striations and usually has dark flecks of dirt particles caught in the pores of cut bone -- all not present in ivory. Resins or plastics have a uniform surface, usually with no striations or diamond or "V" patterns, however some manufacturers are now introducing faux ivory with an attempt to reproduce some of these features.
When looking at a piece, check the bottom or sides for the diamond or cross-hatch pattern typical of real ivory. Then check again for a slight wood-grain pattern, this is also typical of real ivory. Next, check the feel. Real ivory should have a cool-to-the-touch feeling. Resins or plastics may duplicate one or some of these features, but none duplicates them all.
Also, color often varies slightly (I emphasize slightly) throughout natural ivory (more variable in mammoth) from a creamy white to a creamy yellow-tan or a creamy, light yellow-brown, whereas bone and plastics are either consistent in color throughout, or their color variations may be extreme, especially in stained or colorized resins and plastics.
The next test involves using an inexpensive blacklight which you can find at most department or home improvement stores. Shine the blacklight on the piece. Ivory develops a beautiful natural patina with age which shows up as a yellow-brown overall color under normal lighting conditions. Under ultraviolet light, where the original ivory surface shows through the patina, the ivory will show up a bright white. When ultraviolet light is shined on resin or plastic ivory substitutes, the ultraviolet light is absorbed and they exhibit a dull appearance. (The light emitted by many long wave ultraviolet radiation lamps is hazardous to the eyes. NEVER look directly at a UV light.)
You can also take a Q-tip, dip it in alcohol and rub the piece in an inconspicuous area. If the patina comes off and colors the Q-tip, chances are good it's a paint or varnish or some other substance that was applied to give the impression of age.
There is one other way to tell if a piece is ivory or plastic, but be aware this should be used only as a last resort since it can be a destructive test, especially to plastic. It is the "so-called" red hot pin test. Take a pin and heat it in a flame until it is red hot. Touch the hot pin to an inconspicuous area of the piece. If it is real ivory, nothing much will happen. It may, however, produce a tiny smooth scorched point (which is never good for the resale value of a genuine ivory piece). If, on the other hand, it is resin or plastic, the needle may melt into the surface and produce a "burr" or small rough spot (never something a seller of fakes is actually going to allow you to do). If you are very close when you touch the pin to the piece, you may notice the smell of burning plastic. The "hot pin test" is actually more myth than practical. "Hot pin test" results are actually very difficult to verify and, let's face it, no seller is going to let you touch a hot piece of metal to real ivory and a fraud won't let you do it to their plastic piece either.
For more information on this topic, you can check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service web site. They have many web pages devoted to identification, including diagnostic features and photos.
Click here to check out their web site.
Substitute or faux ivory is made from plastic, and plastics are far from environmentally friendly. They are not biodegradable, and they use scarce petrochemical resources. As far as resources used, responsible scrimshanders only use materials that come from
–Extinct animals, ie mammoth and mastodon (and fossilized walrus),
–Materials naturally shed by animals, ie antlers,
–Materials taken from animals long ago, ie piano keys, pool balls, etc.
–Materials taken annually by legal hunting or by fish and game officials, ie elk "whistler teeth"
–Materials that do not violate Federal or State laws
When working with substitutes, micarta easily chips when scratched instead of producing a fine line, corian doesn't hold ink or pigments well, and ivoryite fails in all areas for detailed scrimshaw work. Vegetable ivory or the "tagua nut" is good for carving, but its natural oils resist ink and other pigments.
Also, for knife, sword and pistol grips, natural ivory does not slip in the hand like substitutes when wet from perspiration or rain and it needs no checkering to improve its grip in the palm, which is one reason why ivory grips have always been preferred by those who use knives, swords and/or pistols on a regular basis.
Scrimshanders work on a variety of materials other than ivory that do not endanger living species. They use naturally-shed antler from deer, elk and moose for unique collector pieces such as pen bases, letter openers, key rings, fireplace sets, cribbage boards, chandeliers and lamps, and more. Antler is tougher than ivory and is also used for knife scales, handles and other pieces that get a lot of wear. They also use tagua nuts, a vegetable ivory, to make small unique pieces of jewelry, small game board pieces, etc. Some sea shells, such as abalone, have been scrimshawed and horn, particularly cattle horn, is also scrimshawed. Horn scrimshaw is most often seen on black powder hunting horns. Some extremely hard woods, like ebony, can lend themselves to scrimshaw if properly sealed before work begins. Scrimshaw has even been done on the back of plastic dinner spoons, though these will probably never become "collectable." While other materials may lend themselves to scrimshaw, it is ivory that holds the most value to collectors and artists alike.
Mass-produced scrimshaw is usually photo-transferred, or it may be mechanically painted, laser cut or otherwise mechanically etched into the surface, or, as in the far east, produced by a workshop of people, each one doing just one part of the work and then passing it off to the next worker who does their part, then the next, and so on. Museum and collectable quality scrimshaw is done by an individual artist, start to finish. Their individual technique is recognizable throughout the piece.
The material must first be worked to a fine polish in the area where it will be scrimmed. Polishing seals the surface and keeps pigments that are added later from staining the material in unwanted areas. Some artists then draw designs freehand onto the surface while others first draw on thin paper and then transfer their design to the surface.
However they start, the next step is to incise the surface of the material with fine scratches or thousands of small holes (called stippling), using sharp tools such as a steel scribe or hobby knives or sewing needles held in a pin vise. Many scrimshanders make their own tools for this task. Some scrimshanders use a modern mechanical device similar to a modified tattoo artist's tool rather than work by hand. Such a tool can greatly decrease the time it takes to produce a piece, but many scrimshanders and collectors prefer the look and distinction of a handcrafted piece.
Next, pigment is then applied and then removed from the surface, leaving behind color in the scratches or holes. It is the unique way srimshaw is line or dot shaded and the subsequent "inking" that makes a picture come to life on the surface of the material.
Scrimshaw should be treated in most ways just like fine jewelry, but it also has some unique care requirements.
The scribed picture is permanent, but wear and some substances can remove the pigment or damage or stain the polished surface and even remove fine lines in some cases.
Do not get ivory wet unnecessarily. The pigments, especially colors, may fade or be removed entirely and the ivory could swell and/or crack as a result of exposure to high moisture levels. If your ivory does get wet, dry it thoroughly and as soon as possible after the event.
Direct, bright sunlight can, over time, overly dry your ivory and cause "checks" (cracks) to develop. Sun can also fade certain colored inks and other pigments. Soap, detergents, shampoo, heavily chlorinated water, and especially jewelry cleaning solutions dull the ivory surface and will also remove the pigments and can even eat away some of the fine scrimmed lines. Some jewelry cleaning solutions not only remove the pigments, they also leave a horrible stain in the ivory surface that cannot be safely removed.
Most dirt and oils may be removed by simple dusting or a gentle wiping with a clean, soft cotton cloth. Stubborn dirt can be removed with a cotton swab moistened in rubbing alcohol and wiped gently over the surface. Whatever you do, DO NOT SCRUB! A rough scrubbing can remove pigment from fine lines or even damage fine lines so they will no longer hold ink.
While not always considered necessary on properly dried ivory, you can use a light coat of Renaissance Wax or warm beeswax rubbed gently and carefully on the ivory once or twice a year to preserve its look. A quality paste wax can also be used as long as it has no additives. If you do wax your ivory, it should be repeated whenever the ivory is cleaned, as any alcohol used in the cleaning will remove it. Many owners like the high-gloss and shine of waxed and polished ivory.
Broken, friable or extremely dirty objects requiring repair, consolidation or extensive cleaning should be referred to a professional conservator. Unfortunately, I have had to repair "repairs" attempted by well-meaning but inexperienced persons. In some cases, a poorly attempted repair or deep cleaning can result in nothing short of a disaster that even a professional may not be able to fix. (See my web page on "Restorations" for more information.)
Treated with care, scrimshaw is a valued piece of jewelry or art - an heirloom to be passed on for future generations to enjoy.
Yes, if it's real ivory. Faux ivory and vegetable ivory don't restore well.
Re-inking, re-etching and restoring pieces, including mending cracks and broken or missing parts, is also possible in the hands of a master scrimshander/restorer. In the hands of an amateur, restorations are often so poorly done that the restoration itself ends up devaluing a piece.
I am often asked about some of the chemicals I use in my restoration work, but since some can be hazardous, I do not discuss them in an open forum such as this.
Also, keep in mind that responsible scrimshanders will not work on whale teeth or other marine mammal ivory (except fossil walrus teeth) without copies of the required paperwork stating that the ivory was legally obtained.
Reinking should never be done on works of historic value. Reinking can actually destroy a historic piece, along with its value to history.
Anyone can give you an opinion on value, but that doesn't make them right. A scrimshander or gallery owner may know the market value of their own works or works in their gallery and maybe even that of some contemporaries, but that doesn't mean they know the value of a particular piece in your possession. Get a professional appraisal. Sure, an appraisal isn't free, but anything else is just a guess, and almost always a poor one at that.
In general, appraisers certified by the American Society of Appraisers are probably your best bet. These men and women continuously upgrade their education in their respective fields and are regularly tested by the ASA on their expertise. Scrimshaw usually falls into the appraisal categories of fine art, antiques, jewelry, or decorative arts, and like any artwork, there are going to be those appraisers who are knowledgeable about it and those who aren't. When you talk to an appraiser, make sure you ask them about their experience in appraising scrimshaw.
You can find an ASA appraiser by calling their toll-free apraiser line at (800) ASA-VALU (272-8258), or by using their online internet service at http//www.appraisers.org/findappraiser/
I am not an appraiser. If you call or email me about what something you have might be worth, I'll only be able to give you the same advice you've just read here.
Each piece of ivory has its own reactive potential and therefore the following information is for informational purposes only and is offered without warranties or guarantees of any kind. The information presented here is based solely on Mr. Stevens own testing and experience.
SAFETY NOTE This procedure utilizes phosphoric acid. Always wear eye protection and plastic or latex gloves when handling acids. Also, always pour acid into water and never water into acid. Pouring water into acid can cause a boiling and splashing reaction.
Make a solution of water and phosphoric acid with a combined specific gravity of 1.130. You will need a hydrometer and a hydrometer test jar (tube) for this procedure.
Let the ivory soak in this solution until it loses its opaqueness and takes on a semi-transparent or translucent appearance.
If soaking a thin panel, the ivory may want to curl in the liquid. Prevent this by placing a weight, like a heavy clear drinking glass, on the ivory while it soaks.
Remove from the solution and wash thoroughly in clean cold water to stop the acid reaction and then dry thouroughly.
Your ivory will be flexible and possess the approximate hardness of thick leather or soggy thick leather if soaked for an extended length of time.
The ivory will gradually harden with exposure to the air, but immersion in simmering hot water will restore its softness and flexibility as long as the ivory has not been properly dried yet in decrepitated salt.
Actual effects of this procedure:
The following information is based on a 1/16th inch thick panel of ivory that is 1 1/2” wide and 2 1/2” long. Variations will exist for ivory pieces at different thicknesses and sizes, though the variations will be minor unless the ivory is very thick.
A 1/16th inch thick panel of ivory soaked for 5 hours becomes flexible enough to wrap around a 1/16th inch diameter rod. Soaked for 7 hours, the ivory is so flexible, it can actually be folded back onto itself without splitting.
Ivory soaked for 5 hours reacts to carving tools like thick soggy leather and spreads badly as the carving tools are pressed into or through it. For carving purposes, soaking for only 2-to-3 hours softens the ivory but leaves enough strength in the ivory structure for more accurate carving with less “spreading” of the ivory as the tool pushes into or through the material. Any serious softening will cause the ivory to spread at least a little under the pressure of a carving tool, so care does need to be taken when carving softened ivory. Softening an ivory surface slightly by using a little water is more often a method used for carving as it does not cause the ivory to spread under tools and if dried right away, will usually cause no permanent damage to the internal structure of the ivory.
After soaking, the ivory retains its softness and flexibility for approximately 24 hours before it starts to stiffen. At the end of that 24-hour period, the ivory will still not be hard and remains flexible, just not quite as flexible as it was right after soaking. The ivory remains fairly flexible and will not regain its original hardness and structural integrity until after it is properly dried in decrepitated salt for at least 24 hours. It can take up to 48 hours to harden completely if the ivory was soaked for a more extended period of time.
Drying Ivory After Softening:
To restore ivory to its original color and hardness after softening, wrap the ivory in a sheet of white paper and cover it with dry, decrepitated salt and let it set covered for 24-to-48 hours, depending on how long the ivory was soaked.
Clamp thin panels of ivory wrapped in paper between flat pieces of wood or other stiff material while drying to keep the ivory from re-hardening in wavy curves.
Making decrepitated salt
Spread common table salt out on a baking pan and dry it at very low heat in the kitchen oven until it loses its crystal appearance and takes on a dense opaque white look. Since this method takes a while, leave the oven door partially open to prevent the oven from getting too hot inside and burning the salt.
Spread a 1/2" deep layer of Epsom Salt out on a baking pan. Bake in the kitchen oven at 400º F for an hour and it will lose half its water content and be as good as dried table salt as a desiccant.
At 480º F for two hours the Epsom Salt will lose virtually all its water weight and becomes one of the best desiccants available.
Put into fine-weave cloth bags, or sealed containers. Remove as much air as possible from the containers when sealing or closing. Weigh your full containers. When the containers gain 25-to-50% more than their original weight, the salt has rehydrated and it is time to recharge the Epsom Salt’s desiccating ability by baking it again.
SAFETY NOTE All Epsom Salt you buy is fully hydrated. The reason is because if you add water to dried Epsom Salt, the salt will get VERY HOT. So be careful to not spill water on it or place it in direct contact with wet ivory. It is important to dry your ivory very well before wrapping it in white paper and covering it with the dried Epsom Salt.