THE ART OF CARVING SCRIMSHAW
Whale’s Teeth; 2; whaling scenes; engraved on both sides; mounted as a pair of bookends; 19th century; 6 inches long; sold for $20,000. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.
"The whales we caught were divided, the captain receiving one out of every three and the sailors getting the other two as their share. We were paid at the end of a voyage. We were returning home after I had been on the sea for over four years,” said William F. Holt in a 1938 interview for The Federal Writer's Project.
Holt was talking about his memories of being a whaler in the 19th century. It wasn’t uncommon for young seafarers like Holt to be dragged to their death after being caught in harpoon lines or jolted overboard. When they worked, they worked hard, especially on factory ships.
Floating factories were set up to board and completely process whales caught and killed by smaller ships at sea. It made it much easier to catch the large blue whales. Plus, the whole whale could be used instead of just the blubber and head.
Despite the back-breaking work, there were still thousands of hours with nothing to do. As the months turned into years, it was carving that saved the whalemen’s sanity.
The tall-tales of the era tell of pirates, storms, and sea monsters. The scrimshaw tells the story of vessels, voyages and whale hunting.
In the end, idle hours spent etching discarded whale teeth became an art form. Today the scrimshaw done by these American whalemen some 200 years ago has become America’s home-grown art.
“According to rules, we abstain from all labor on Sunday,” wrote one sailor in his diary. “A few men write or draw; some scrimshone, or carve keepsakes for friend’s from bone of the whale’s jaw, the ivory of the teeth, or the rich woods and mother-of-pearl found on the islands.”
When whaling disappeared, scrimshaw all but disappeared too. But amazing pieces remain behind to tell their story.
Only about one percent of the antique scrimshaw is signed, so its makers in large part remain a mystery. Antique scrimshaw is also widely reproduced.
Pres. John F. Kennedy was an avid scrimshaw collector who liked to give pieces away to friends. He brought a lot of attention to the field and also helped boost prices.
Fakes and forgeries abound. Some of the reproductions are meant to fool. Others were simply made as objets d’ art. Condition is a key factor.
Teeth are highly desirable, so many of the reproductions are teeth. One thing about the originals, they have a distinctive grain. They’re also buff-colored from sailors polishing them a lot with oil. It darkened them.
Handling the scrimshaw darkened pieces even more. This kind of shading can be duplicated. But, you’ll want to look closer for crevices, inconsistencies, or unfinished areas.
The carving is also going to be shallow in an antique piece of scrimshaw. Whalers used crude tools, not the modern knives used today.
On Jan. 30, Sotheby’s, New York, featured a selection of vintage scrimshaw in its Marine Art auction. Here are some current values for scrimshaw.
Walrus Tusk; primitive whaling scene; Nathan Smith; circa 1850; 17 inches long; $15,000.
Walrus Tusk; engraved on one side and inscribed Bark Henry; with angel; sea; whale tails; seabirds; etc., displayed on teak base; 19 ¼ inches long; $17,500.
Whale’s Teeth; 2; whaling scenes; engraved on both sides; mounted as a pair of bookends; 19th century; 6 inches long; $20,000.
Whale’s Tooth; portrait of the whaling bark Black Eagle of New Bedford; also eagle head above holding a banner; 20th century; 6 inches long; $20,000.
Walrus Tusks; 2; whaling scenes in open ocean; black ink; 1978; 18 ¼ inches long; $20,000.
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