Scrimshaw and other nautical carvingsBy

Scrimshaw

and other nautical carvings

When scrimshaw is mentioned, almost all non-scrimshaw collectors and dealers think of carving on sperm whale teeth only. But scrimshaw also includes engravings on skeletal whale bone–such as the jaw bone, called panbone–and ivory from other marine mammals such as walrus. Although scrimshaw is widely associated with nautical themes and designs of the 19th century whaling industry, vintage scrimshaw was also produced as tribal art in many cultures. Today, scrimshaw is recognized as a unique medium in which present-day artists have developed their own modern themes.

Scrimshaw reproductions may take several forms. There are new carvings on genuine ivory or bone with the deliberate intent to create an "antique;" new carvings on genuine ivory or bone sold as signed and dated contemporary art, clearly marked synthetic museum reproductions and mass marketed, unmarked synthetic replicas .

Painstakingly carved deliberate fakes are directed towards the scrimshaw collector and seldom appear in the general market. Pieces of contemporary art and museum copies are usually clearly marked and openly sold for what they are. The biggest problem in the general antiques market are the mass produced synthetic pieces and are the focus of this article.

Synthetic or natural?

The great majority of synthetic scrimshaw reproductions are made of manufactured polymer resins, or plastic. Virtually all plastic will absorb long ultraviolet (UV) light and appear a dull matte blue under black light or appear the same color under black light as it appears under white (room) lighting. This is regardless of the surface color of the plastic. Natural bone and ivory appear white to yellowish-white under long wave black light regardless of their surface color in white light.

Do not use heated pins, open flame, apply acetone, or scratch the surface of the test object. Not only are such tests largely ineffective, they are destructive and potentially harmful–some plastics emit toxic fumes when heated or exposed to acetone.

Bone or ivory?

Carvers in China now using bones of domesticated water buffaloes to imitate ivory objects. Subjects on the new carvings include 19th century whaling and nautical themes (Figs. 10-12). These new pieces will fluoresce white or yellowish-white like ivory under long wave black light. Staff of the Kendall Whaling Museum told ACRN that no similar boxes of bone have ever been documented from the 19th century. All such pieces should be viewed with extreme suspicion.

You can separate bone from ivory by examining the surface. All true ivory comes from a tooth–a tusk is simply a large tooth. The part of ivory that is carved is composed primarily of dentine, a nearly perfectly solid mass. A microscope is required to observe any cavities in ivory, called dentinal tubules, which average one micron in diameter (1/25,400th of an inch). By contrast, cavities in bone through which fluids pass, the Halversian System, are easily visible with the unaided eye or a loupe. They form a typical pattern of dark pits and grooves (Figs. 23-24)

But be careful. The better-made synthetic fakes now include the pits and grooves of natural bone in the molds of synthetic copies (Figs. 23-24) A black light test, however, would prove the more accurate fakes to be made of synthetic material, not true bone.

Remember, guidelines in this article are detecting the mass produced plastic scrimshaw fakes, not individually crafted forgeries on old bone or ivory.

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Fig. 1

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Fig. 2

Figs. 1-2 The most commonly faked scrimshaw is the sperm whale tooth. In recent years, the latest generation plastic copies have become somewhat closer in general appearance to 19th century originals.

Italicized words in captions below appear as titles or signatures. Figures 3-18 are new.

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Fig. 3 Rachel Pringle of Barbadoes, plastic sperm whale tooth, 5½″.

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Fig. 4 Eagle, arctic whaling scene on reverse, 5½″. Plastic sperm whale tooth.

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Fig. 5 Steam Whaler William Lewis, plastic walrus tusk section, 3¾″. Pencil/pen holder.

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Fig. 6 Cribbage board, plastic tusk, plantation scene; 12½,

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Fig. 7 Plastic 17″ panbone (whale jaw bone). Whaling scene with ships.

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Fig. 8 Plastic game board and calendar; 9″ dia. disc. Center for marbles, cribbage holes around border. Border also inscribed with months. Henry Sadler, 1832.

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Fig. 9 Certificate of authenticity accompanying reproduction scrimshaw sold by Offstage Auctions in the mid-1990's.

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Fig. 10 New box carved in new bone, basketweave sides, whale on lid; 3½″.

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Fig. 11 Carved in new bone, letters of alphabet on discs in 3″ case.

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Fig. 12 New box carved in new bone, basketweave sides; about 2″.

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Fig. 13

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Fig. 14

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Fig. 15

Figs. 13-15 It is common to find inscriptions, dates and other personal information on new scrimshaw and nautical carvings. These photos show typical examples. Fig. 13, "Joseph Boyle" on reverse of new panbone. Fig. 14, "Taken in the Arctic Ocean 1850," reverse of new sperm whale tooth. Fig. 15, "The steam whaler William Lewis, September 1891" on new walrus tusk section.

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Fig. 16

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Fig. 17

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Fig. 18

Figs. 16-18 Many new pieces have construction details, wear and weathering cast in the mold to create a fairly realistic appearance. Fig. 16 shows a foot on a cribbage board cast as one piece with the board. Authentic feet and other added details were virtually always carved separately and attached. Fig. 17, simulated wear cast into of end of new tooth. Fig. 18, wear and weathering cast into base of new tooth.

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Fig. 19 Cross sections of sperm whale teeth. The bottom of genuine sperm whale teeth have a hollow space in the base called a pulp cavity (shown in white in the illustration). The pulp cavity is distinctly conical in genuine teeth. This conical section is hard to duplicate in the molded plastic teeth. The cavity in most new teeth is a flat-topped dome or an off-center, irregular shape.

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Fig. 20 Pulp cavities in genuine teeth frequently, but not always, have small nodules known as pulp stones (arrow). Pulp stones are a sign of genuine sperm whale teeth. The base of this genuine tooth is more closed than typical teeth. The amount of closure visible may be affected by where, if at all, the base of the tooth is cut or sawed. The Kendall Whaling Museum, Sharon Massachusetts USA

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Fig. 21 Bases of two molded plastic sperm whale teeth. The cavity in these bases is a simple cylinder and doesn't attempt to duplicate an original pulp cavity.

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Fig. 22 Another set of new molded plastic teeth with pulp cavities deliberately designed to imitate original pulp cavities. These cavities are very irregular in shape, not conical like pulp cavities in genuine teeth. Genuine teeth were frequently sawed off on the base so the piece could be displayed upright. Note the molded "saw" marks on these bases which imitate old saw marks.

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Fig. 23 Top view of genuine bone showing pits and grooves left by blood vessels.

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Fig. 24 End view of genuine bone showing dark pits left by blood vessels.

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Fig. 25 View of reverse side of new molded plastic panbone. Very realistic imitation of Halversian System that appears in genuine bone, dark pitting interspersed with dark grooves. The surface is also realistically "splintered" like genuine bone.

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Fig. 26 End view of the cast plastic panbone shown in Fig. 25 The dark pits in this cross section view are a realistic depiction of an end view of genuine bone.

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Fig. 27

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Fig. 28

Figs. 27-28 Natural bone and plastic in visible, or white light in Fig. 27. The same pieces under ultraviolet, or black light in Fig. 28.