SCRIMSHAW: IS IT REAL? - Part I
by ROD CARDOZA, August 2012 (Updated August 2014)
Perhaps no other field within nautical antique collecting is more misunderstood or beset with bogus examples than is the collectible known as "scrimshaw." There are 3 primary reasons for this:
1. Ignorance or lack of experience on the part of the collector,
2. A surging market demand for the real thing which has driven prices into 5 figures for desirable examples, and
3. The relative ease by which fakes and forgeries are dumped into the marketplace resulting in market saturation.
It is our purpose here to aid the collector and potential buyer of scrimshaw, so that he/she is aware of what the genuine article is and the pitfalls associated with buying it.
To a large part of the general population the term "scrimshaw" has no meaning. To a small sector it evokes the concept of ivory, bone, plastic, and other such surfaces being decorated with engraved pictographs which are filled with a pigment, resulting in an artistic scene. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.
In reality the true definition of scrimshaw is: The art of carving or otherwise constructing decorative, often useful, objects as done by whale men, sailors, and seafarers during the age of whaling. The basic materials were those derived from whaling: products of the whale, but also shells, various forms of sea life, the wide range of materials gathered in ports-of-call, and the materials normally carried aboard whaling ships including metals and woods. The artifact thus formed must have one or more clear nautical association(s) with respect to the maker, motif, method, or material to render it "authentic scrimshaw."
Why is this definition so important? Because it clearly indicates what scrimshaw is and what it is not. For the most part scrimshaw was done in the 19th century, although 18th and certainly 20th century examples are extant. Perhaps the most important aspect of the definition is that it specifies that only the "scrimshaw" done by whale men, sailors and seafarers during the whaling era is real. What about all the rest? Well they may be pretty, they may be art, they may contain authentic materials, and they may have value. But they are NOT scrimshaw!
For many "in the know" about scrimshaw, the term evokes the image of an engraved whale's tooth. The whale's tooth has come to be the representative "icon" of scrimshaw. Recent auction results also testify to its being the most prized and valuable to collectors.
But certainly there are many other forms of scrimshaw in addition to teeth. These include pie crimpers (jagging wheels), busks (corset stays), fids, bodkins, pipes, seam rubbers, ditty boxes, snuff boxes, neckerchief slides, swifts (yarn winders), watch holders, rolling pins, jewelry, children's toys, ship models, games, picture frames, candle stick holders, furniture, needle cases, knives, tools, eating utensils, walking sticks, baskets, ship's pulleys (blocks), cleats, dippers, clothespins, sewing devices, etc., etc.
While the list may seem extensive, and the output varied, there was, to a degree, a certain continuity in the whalemen's production of scrimshaw. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but it can be said with a fair degree of certainty that most whalemen found a form of scrimshaw in which they were proficient and stuck to it. Frequently a certain "hand" can be identified as having produced an object. Accordingly, it is not uncommon for those of us who deal in scrimshaw on a daily basis to come across nearly identical examples from diverse sources. In our own experience for example, we have sold pie crimpers and swifts that were exactly (or near enough so) like those exhibited in museums.
The following depict good examples of genuine scrimshaw. It is important to recognize that all of these varied examples are properly labeled as being "scrimshaw:"
|A superb example of a late 18th or very early 19th century scrimshawed busk, or lady's corset stay.|
The earliest busks were of wood, sometimes chip carved. Later busks were made of panbone or baleen, and were frequently profusely engraved ("scrimshawed"). This transitional example features a wooden backing which has been overlaid with an exquisitely reticulated panbone facing which is riveted together. Note the recurring star, heart, and diamond motifs -- a favorite amongst sailors.
|A typical example of a 19th century whaleman-produced inlaid scrimshaw box, using the materials available: tropical wood, whalebone, abalone shell, and whale tooth. Again, note the stars and hearts.|
A view showing the interior of the scrimshaw box. Note the very unusual whalebone folding lid support stays.
|Important boxed scrimshaw swift made by Captain Henry Dagget of the whaleship MALTA.|
Captain Dagget was an accomplished scrimshander who was especially fond of making swifts. At least 7 swifts by his hand are known -- this one and the example in Mystic Seaport Museum being the best. 19th century whalemen proved to be good artisans, but in general, their creativity and subject matter was limited to certain "accepted" formats which they embellished with their own creative "styles." In Captain Dagget's case, most of his scrimshaw was presented to his wife Mary, often with the initials "M.A.D." Tied with certain other "signature" aspects of his work, his scrimshaw output was uniquely identifiable.
A very interesting Oriental twist on the "Western art form" of scrimshaw. Here is a Japanese-painted sperm whale's tooth.
It is well known that the Japanese were/are whalers in modern times, and this 19th century example affirms that the Eastern cultures also prized whale's teeth. The painting is done over a clay base giving a slight bas-relief effect to the scrimshaw. Painted scrimshaw by Western hands is extremely scarce, but some examples do exist.
|An exceptional, rarely found example of utilitarian sailor scrimshaw in the form of carved whale ivory hammock stays used to support a sailor's all important berthing in the foc'sle.|
The care and detail lavished on these whale tooth spreaders indicate the pride which ordinary seamen in the 19th century took with their personally made belongings. The heart shapes speak of the sailor's longing for his "terra firma" accommodations at home. Note the very distinctive discoloration and and surface wear telling of years of exposure and use in the adverse conditions aboard ship. The size of these 3 inch stays indicate that they were fashioned from huge teeth!
The holy grail of scrimshaw, an authentic "Susan's Tooth," so named because it was produced by Frederick Myrick on the whaleship Susan out of Nantucket during a voyage to the Pacific spanning the two year period from 1828 to 1829. The appeal of Susan's teeth stems from Myrick's beautiful engraving of ships and whaling scenes and his bent for documenting names, places, events, ships and dates. Myrick is also the poet who coined the famous phrase, "Death to the living, long life to the killers, Success to sailors' wives & greasy luck to whalers." This example depicts "The Ann of London on the Coast of Japan" and is dated "January the 7th, 1829."
Thanks to the ground breaking work of the Kendall Institute of the New Bedford Whaling Museum approximately 35 genuine Susan's teeth have been identified and catalogued. Through intensive examination and research many of the characteristics common to all of Myrick's output have been documented. One of the more interesting discoveries was that Myrick apparently used a template to aid him in portraying ship details with speed and accuracy.
Remarkably, once Myrick returned to Nantucket on the Susan in late 1829, he ceased producing scrimshaw! Because Myrick performed his work on a single voyage, with a chronological sequence of dates documented on the scrimshaw he produced, it is believed by researchers that few if any additional authentic "Susan's Teeth" are to be found. Because a Susan's Tooth now commands in excess of 5 figures on the rare occasion one comes to market, several clever fakes have been attempted.
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