SCRIMSHAW: ASTONISHING OBJECTS CREATED OUT OF WHALEBONE AND TEETH
Whale bone and whale ivory swift, valued at $16,000. Photo courtesy of Northeast Auctions
How does a 19th century folk art like scrimshaw turn into a 20th century treasure?
The popularity of scrimshaw in the 20th century can be traced to one famous collector, President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy kept scrimshaw on his desk in the White House and gave pieces away to friends and acquaintances. Photos of his scrimshaw collection appeared in magazines and created an interest in the collecting genre.
Scrimshaw was an art form practiced exclusively by whaling men. It may have originated with the Indians and Eskimos. But it was the Yankee scrimshanders, as they called themselves, who carved astonishing objects out of whalebone and teeth.
Carving was a way to keep busy on voyages that sometimes lasted for five years with the things they had the most of: time, whalebone and teeth.
“According to rules, we abstain from all labor on Sunday,” wrote one sailor in his diary. “A few men write or draw; some scrimshaw, or carve keepsakes for friends from bone of the whale’s jaw, the ivory of the teeth, or the rich woods and mother-of-pearl found on the islands.”
These objects d’art ranged from simple clothespins and rolling pins to yarn baskets, walking sticks, dolls, rings, bracelets, and spool racks. The objects often included elaborately decorated whaling scenes and fancy designs. Mostly they carved for their loved ones waiting at home.
Some historians call scrimshaw the only indigenous American art form.
The teeth and jawbones of the sperm whale was a preferred material, but the carvers also used walrus and narwhal tusk, porpoise jaws and baleen from the mouth of bowhead, humpback and gray whales.
Most scrimshanders used a simple jackknife. But the author Herman Melville noted there were some artisans who possessed little boxes of dentist-like tools for carving.
Decoration plays a key role in valuing scrimshaw. A decorated tooth is also more desirable if it bears the name of a whaler, such as Susan out of Nantucket, and the carver’s name such as Frederick Myrick. Myrick’s 1820 voyages are some of the earliest on record.
Any whaling ports in this country can be a source for scrimshaw today, although better pieces usually show up in specialized auctions.
Beware of fakes. The whaling industry faded after the 19th century, and few scrimshaw pieces were made after that. You’ll see carved ivory today that is sometimes sold as 19th century scrimshaw.
If you’re unsure about a piece, have someone who knows scrimshaw examine it. When you’re buying scrimshaw, deal with people who stand behind what they sell.
On Aug. 15-16, 1998, Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, N.H., offered a collection of scrimshaw in its sale. A 7-inch long sperm whale tooth decorated with a ship and four whaleboats pursuing whales sold for $9,500. An 8-inch long, whaling scene, polychromed (multi-colored paint) sperm whale tooth, with geometric and foliate decorations at the base, realized $7,000.
A polychromed turned whalebone swift (a reel used to hold spinning yarn) with extensive inlay of baleen, abalone, tortoise shell and mother-of-pearl, brought $16,000. A classical whalebone “Sunburst” watch-holder, together with a later Elgin watch, chain and knife sold for $7,500.
For more information on scrimshaw, consult “Nautical Antiques Price Guide” by W.D. Ball, published by Schiffer Books.
Q. Would you give me an idea of what an old Uncle Sam mechanical bank is worth? It’s cast iron, 11 inches tall and opens up when it gets a coin? Esther Bugay, Imperial, Pa.
A. There are two types of old banks: still and mechanical. Still banks don’t move. Mechanical banks have animated parts which give the toys action.
In terms of value, the mechanical banks are the choicest. Original condition is also important. Many old banks were designed in factories where they were molded from two simple halves. The halves were then connected by a screw to form one character. This original connecting screw is important in valuing the toy.
Beware of reproductions. Reproduction banks are plentiful. Some may look and feel old but in fact are new. Your cast iron mechanical bank was patented in 1886. An Uncle Sam Bank sold at Bill Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, N.J., on May 2, 1998 for $9,200.
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