By Rod Cardoza
©1999-2012 West Sea Company.
All rights reserved. Reproducing any part of
this article without the expressed written consent of the author is
forbidden by law. Violators will be prosecuted.
All photographs courtesy West Sea Company unless otherwise noted.
Most dealers and collectors who are concerned with authenticating scrimshaw have heard of the "hot needle test." Well, throw that hot needle away! ...in a safe receptacle of course.
Many owners of fake scrimshaw come to us declaring, "Well I put a hot needle on it and it didn't melt. So it must be real." Unfortunately this so-called "test" renders mixed results at best and can often yield the wrong answer altogether. Firstly, a valid test requires that the pin be red hot at the "instant" contact is made with the surface tested. Most attempts are done with a somewhat cooled needle, resulting in no test or false results. Sample scenario: "It didn't burn or melt, therefore it must be real."
Secondly, the test presumes that the tester will know how to interpret the results. The fact is the test cannot adequately distinguish between ivory, bone, and plastics mixed with bone meal. The latter material is a main ingredient in many fakes on the market today. Bone meal is routinely added to the polymers molded into fake scrimshaw in order to give the product an authentic looking color and the "heft" of real scrimshaw.
A far more effective (and it might be added, less destructive) "field test" for scrimshaw is the emery board. A simple nail file of emery (not the metal type) stroked across an inconspicuous portion of the test piece will produce a tiny deposit of dust particles on the board. Smelling this residue will help in determining its composition. An acrid to sweet "plastic smell" indicates a polymer (plastic fake), whereas the "burnt bone" smell that we have endured while on the receiving end of the dentist's drill indicates organic (genuine) material.
Another good field test is the existence of static electricity. It has been shown that rubbing a suspect piece vigorously with a flannel or corduroy cloth will induce an electrostatic charge on a piece of plastic sufficient enough to actually pick up a small piece of tissue paper! Real ivory, so stroked will not react.
At home or in the lab, even more conclusive tests can be performed. Using a moderate power microscope of 30X magnification, the surface of polymer "scrimshaw" will exhibit small round air bubbles -- a result of the molding process before the liquid plastic cured into its present ivory-like state. Real ivory will appear perfectly smooth.
Under long wave ultraviolet light real bone and ivory fluoresces very white, often with a blue-violet tinge. Plastic polymer pieces will not react when so illuminated.
Note that none of these tests offers a method of differentiating authentic materials such as ivory, baleen, or bone from one another... much less, discerning the different types of ivory. For this, forensic microscopic examination is necessary.
No one could be expected to carry a microscope to every antique shop or flea market ever visited. However, in keeping with the "field test" strategy above, a 7 to 10 power loupe of the type jewelers use can be a very valuable tool!
It is relatively easy to distinguish ivory, bone, and baleen from one another. Baleen, called "whale bone" during the whaling era, is a flexible, striated material occurring in tapered "hairy" plates up to 16 feet in length and a foot wide. It varies in color from jet black and gray to greenish brown, greenish yellow, to a semi opaque yellow. It is fibrous and examination of an end piece will reveal a "grain" not unlike the end grain of porous wood. Baleen can be polished to a lustrous surface similar to plastic in appearance. Indeed, baleen was the "plastic" of the 19th century, being used in a variety of manufactured goods from toothbrushes to umbrellas! Its acquisition was the mainstay of whaling during the waning years of that industry.
It is a little trickier to tell the difference between bone and ivory. In particular, pan bone, the flared spoon-like rear portion of the sperm whale jaw, was the second most popular scrimshaw material of the whalemen. Only the whale teeth themselves were more prized. The reason was that the pan is the largest and densest bone occurring in nature and lent itself to being cut, carved, and engraved in large segments. Many objects made of pan bone are incorrectly labeled as "ivory" by the unknowledgeable.
A cross section of sperm whale panbone, clearly showing flecks and striations. Note that not all panbone is so distinctively marked and that the contrasts can be much more subtle.
Under moderate magnification all bone exhibits grain like parallel striations, dark flecks of dried blood, and minuscule cavities -- all not present in ivory. Ivory, being most dense, will reveal a smooth, homogeneous surface, free from occlusions and flecks. However, old polished whale ivory often has acquired a light yellow to golden brown patina which evidences itself in the wavy, irregular grain patterns of the pulp and dentin of the tooth.
Cross section of a whale's tooth showing the pulp as the slightly darker area surrounding the horizontal crack. The remainder of the tooth is made up of dentin. The orange spots are stains or patina picked up by the ivory from contact with it surroundings. Note that while whale ivory is homogeneous, it often exhibits graining, as in this example. The graining in elephant ivory forms regular patterns. Whale tooth grain is irregular.
Differentiating between the types of ivories is most difficult. Antique ivory came from five primary source mammals. In the order in which they most commonly appear they are: elephant, walrus, whale, boar, narwhal and hippopotamus. Of these only whale ivory is referred to as "teeth" while the others are elongated "tusks." A tusk is a modified tooth. Uniquely, whale teeth consist only of the inner pulp with a dentin exterior. Tusks all have the same physical structure: pulp cavity, dentin, cementum, and enamel. Dentin makes up the bulk of a tooth or tusk and is generally what is considered to be "ivory."
Most ivory (virtually all Oriental and Indian ivory) is from elephant tusks. We will not attempt to distinguish between African and Indian elephant ivory here, although minute differences do exist.
Elephant ivory in general bears smooth, tight, and regularly occurring surface striations. This striation or grain is subtle and can often be seen as translucent. The end grain of elephant ivory is particularly telling, exhibiting a crisscross pattern known as "Schraeger lines." Again, the grain is subtle, often translucent, and takes a bit of getting used to to recognize. Interestingly, one way of determining modern elephant ivory from ancient (that is Mastodon or Mammoth) is the angle of these lines relative to the surface of the tusk in which they occur. The Schraeger lines in modern ivory strike an angle of 115° whereas in ancient ivory the angle is considerably less.
A cross section of antique elephant tusk ivory clearly showing the distinctive Shraeger lines, unique to elephant ivories.
Walrus ivory is distinctive in that the outer dentin layer is dense white with little graining (as in whale ivory), while the softer inner pulp "core" has a granular, tapioca-like appearance. Generally, walrus ivory can be identified because of the stark contrast between the two layers of the tusk so formed. As might be expected, the majority of Eskimo ivory artifacts were fashioned from walrus tusks although whale teeth were also used. In the late 19th and on into the early 20th centuries it is documented that American whalers in the arctic took thousands of pounds of walrus ivory. This raw material eventually found its way into commercial trade in the form of walking sticks, umbrella handles, cutlery, etc.
Cross section of walrus tusk showing the pure white dentin at the top and the "tapioca"-like pulp below.
Whale tooth is near enough like the other types of ivory as to be easily confused. Size is the easiest distinguishing characteristic. Whale teeth range in size from 3 to 11 inches in length (although larger examples exist!) and their length to width ratio is smaller than that of elephant or walrus tusks. The surface grain and color can often be nearly identical to tusk. But one very telling difference in whale ivory, either cut or whole, is the frequent existence of circular nodules or polyps in the root cavity of the tooth.
Boar tusks most commonly are in evidence in today's antique marketplace as cane handles and corkscrews.
Narwhal tusks are actually the result of the incisors of the narwhal growing together in a spiral twist! The function of these bizarre looking tusks is still debated by marine biologists. Though rare, narwhal tusks in excess of 10 feet in length are known to exist. Because of their twisted nature their use in scrimshaw pretty much limited to producing cane shafts, candle stick holders and some forms of furniture.
Hippo tusk is the hardest of all ivory and also the rarest. The tusk is so hard that it can be made to spark steel, and for this reason was little used except by the most determined artisans. Hippo ivory has a smooth cream colored appearance with a very fine grain. The shape and size of the tusk is most telling as almost all are under a foot long and distinctively curved (describing the arc of a circle) along their entire length. Of course this does not preclude small sections from being squared up, as in the case of other ivories. But with hippo, the dimensions would be limited to 2 or 3 inches.
Other animal materials used less extensively in scrimshaw were sea tortoise shell, a variety of sea shells like abalone and mother of pearl, shark and ray skin, seal skin, albatross bills, sawfish and swordfish bills, and coral. Each of these have distinctive characteristics which make them easy to identify.
A number of plastic reproduction "scrimshaw" items were produced by manufacturers such as Artek, Juratone, Historycraft, Grooveport, and others from the 1970's onward. This time frame is notable because of the concurrent passage of the "Endangered Species Act of 1973" in the United States. Such reproductions ran the gamut from whale's teeth, to panbone, walrus tusks, and even hippopotamus tusks!
In his landmark book, "Fakeshaw: A Checklist of Plastic 'Scrimshaw,'" Dr. Stuart Frank, Director of the prestigious Kendall Whaling Museum, first published in 1988 a listing of known mass-produced reproduction "scrimshaw" referred to as "machine-manufactured polymer scrimshaw fakes." Later, more inclusive editions, have subsequently been published.
In our own experience, the existence of such fakes in today's antique marketplace is all too common. More often than not, when we receive an inquiry from a hopeful owner of a piece of "scrimshaw" the item turns out to be a fake. Sometimes the items come with a seemingly ironclad "provenance" of authenticity. Witness this correspondence which we recently received:
I noticed your site on the web, and thought I'd send you these pictures of two sperm whale teeth I bought from an Inuit (Eskimo) Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer [!! editor] I met in the Arctic. He'd traded them directly for some work he'd done on walrus tusks. The scrimshaw is genuine (I'm a dentist!) and not for sale. [!! editor again!] The pieces are 13 cm tall. Quiberon Bay was a "famous" sea battle between the English and French off France. But Rachel Pringle, I have no idea. I'd be interested in hear any views you have on their history and value.
Unfortunately our reply had to be that the so-called "genuine" scrimshaw was indeed fake, despite its apparent "impeccable credentials" purporting a genuine origin. Dr. Frank's book lists the "Royal George" depicting a bust of King George III inscribed "Quiberon Bay 20th Nov 1759" as Juratone product 115, and lists "Rachel Pringle" as Grooveport product SJ11! Photographs of the hapless dentist's plastic scrimshaw are below.
A few points are worthy of note regarding this so-called "fakeshaw." One characteristic common to virtually all of the plastic polymer material is that "age cracks" are simulated, not actual cracks at all, but lines and/or furrows cast into the plastic. A real crack in genuine ivory is sharp and has depth. With old scrimshaw in particular, cracks are filled with "good dirt" as scrimshaw specialist Desmond Liddey refers to it. This dirt is easily seen under the 7-10 power magnification provided by a powerful jeweler's loupe.
A second characteristic is that virtually all of the fake "scrimshaw" is identified by name, title, or date. Remember the axiom, "Guilty until proven innocent!"
Plastic polymer material does not have the same physical properties of the material it purports to be, particularly in the case of whale ivory. A quick field test is to place a genuine whale's tooth against the cheek. Compare that with a suspicious example. The real tooth will be cooler to the touch, due to the density and conductivity of the ivory. Remember, plastic is an insulator.
Another difference between real and plastic material is the way in which they refract light. The pigmented plastic polymer used in "fakeshaw" is opaque. Real ivory is slightly translucent and will give the perception of a minute amount of "depth" when viewed. This is not the case with heavily patinated or downright dirty ivory however.
Finally, reproduction whale's teeth usually lack a deep "hollow" in the root that many real teeth exhibit. A very telling sign of the authenticity of a tooth is the existence of nodules or "polyps" on the interior root cavity of a tooth. The existence of such circular nodes, according to scrimshaw enthusiast and dentist, Angelo DeFalco of Columbus, Ohio, is unique to whale and human teeth!
The root end of a whale's tooth clearly showing the deep cavity which ends in a sharp point. Note the distinctive nodules or polyps on the inner walls of the cavity.
Beware of "teeth" that have only a small open indentation at the bottom. This "test" is not conclusive however, as genuine teeth are sometimes solid at the base, or nearly so. But in these cases, such teeth exhibit radiating striations or cracks, much like the end of an old log.
TO VIEW MORE GENUINE SCRIMSHAW, CLICK HERE
For further reading on the topic see:
1. Walter Earle, "Scrimshaw Folk Art of the Whalers," 1957, Whaling Museum Society, Inc., Cold Spring Harbor, NY.
2. Norman E. Flayderman, "Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders, Whales and Whalemen," 1972, N. Flayderman & Co., Inc., New Milford, CT.
3. Stuart M. Frank, Ph.D., "Fakeshaw: A Checklist of Plastic Scrimshaw," 1993, The Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon, MA.
4. Michael McManus, "A Treasury of American Scrimshaw, A collection of the Useful and Decorative," 1997. Penguin Books, NY.
5. Richard Malley, "Graven by the Fishermen Themselves," 1983, Msystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut.