Start free trial

Home > News, Articles & Multimedia > Articles > Tells Give Away ‘Not Quite Authentic’ Antique Scrimshaw

Tells Give Away ‘Not Quite Authentic’ Antique Scrimshaw

by Douglass Moody (09/23/09).

I recently acquired a scrimshawed whale tooth, knowing full-well that it was NOT an antique, despite the scribed date of 1859. I made my original assessment based solely on “tells” visible in the seller-provided photographs, which are included with this article. Once in hand, loupe-inspection confirmed my suspicions.

Image #1 - Good Old Soule obvImage #2 - Captain John M. Soule rev

But first, here are the historic references I found about Capt. John M. Soule and the whaleship Splendid depicted in the scrimshaw:

Bridgewater, MA Vital Records (Marriages):
John M. (Soule) of Halifax and Aaroline P. Pratt, June 23, 1842

1840 United States Federal Census: John M Soule New Milford, Litchfield, Connecticut

Books, Pamphlets, Log Books, Pictures, etc. Illustrating Whales and the Whale Fishery Contained in the Free Public Library New Bedford, MA (Page 13):
“Adeline,” ship,
(cruise:) 1865-69,
(Captain:) John M. Soule,
(owner:) C. R. Tucker & Co.” (of New Bedford)

Foreign Ships in Micronesia, Marshall Islands:

1860: “Whaleship WILLIAM C. NYE of NB, Capt John M. Soule, lay off Namorik on Mar 16. ‘Canoes came alongside with a few coconuts’.”

Foreign Ships in Micronesia, Port Pohnpei:

1867: “Whaleship ADELINE of NB, Capt John M. Soule, visited the Pohnpei area. Feb 10: Stood off Pingelap. A boat came off the island. Feb 11: Stood off at Mokil. Ship bought a few hogs & other things. Feb 12: Anchored at Pohnpei in Hadley’s Harbor.” Took on wood & water before leaving Pohnpei on Mar 1.”

1868: “Whaleship ADELINE of NB, Capt John M. Soule, again put in at Pohnpei on Jan 31 after lying off Mokil far part of a day. Four men deserted, two of them captured shortly afterwards. The chief would not surrender the other two deserters. Left Pohnpei on Feb 19.”

The ship Splendid was a whaler out of Sag Harbor, then New Bedford, and eventually New Zealand. The Splendid can be found in the following internet references:

• “Whaleship Splendid in Honolulu HI, March 22, 1845″

• “In 1848, the Cold Spring Harbor whaleship Splendid, left on a whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Her crew traveled thousands of miles and returned to Long Island 29 months later.”

• “. . . whaler Splendid arrived at the Heads (New Zealand) on Saturday, 23rd (1878) ult., after a three months’ cruise Off the Chatham Islands. . .”

Sunday Island, Kermadec Group of Islands.

The Tells

Here are the tells which I used to determine that this authentic whale tooth was scribed within the last 50-years, or so:

1. The vast majority of authentic antique scrimshawed whale teeth have the skirt trimmed-off, which allows the tooth to self-display (stand alone), and more importantly, prevents the naturally thin skirt from splitting due to dry-out cracks. The Soule tooth has not been trimmed.

The Soule tooth's skirt has not been trimmed.

The Soule tooth's skirt has not been trimmed.

2. Authentic antique scrimshawed whale teeth were smoothed with a series of shark skins, and were usually quite smooth, but not highly polished. Modern scrimshanders use power tools and/or a series of sandpapers, from 60-grit to 1500-grit. The Soule tooth is highly polished.

The Soule tooth is highly polished.

The Soule tooth is highly polished.

3. Only 5 percent of authentic scrimshawed whale teeth have scribed text; and only 2 percent are dated. Of my 33 authentic antique scrimshawed whale teeth, only one has text (name of a ship). Forgers nearly always scribed text and dates onto whale teeth to increase their value.

Forgers nearly always scribed text and dates onto whale teeth to increase their value.

Forgers nearly always scribed text and dates onto whale teeth to increase their value.

4. 150-years ago (1859) an authentic whaler/scrimshander would know that the name of the largest whaling port in the U.S. is New Bedford, NOT Bedford (see above).

5. Loupe inspection of the scribed text reveals chipping in the straight lines, similar to the ragged pattern visible when a pane of glass is scored prior to sizing. 150-years ago, a whaler would have used a fresh whale tooth, which is fairly soft, allowing easy scribing with a jack knife and sail needle. The cut and scribe lines in a soft tooth are smooth and sharp-edged. As a tooth ages, the surface becomes brittle. The cut & scribe lines in an old tooth are jagged. The inscribed title “Good Old Soule” has ragged edges.

The inscribed title “Good Old Soule” has ragged edges.

The inscribed title “Good Old Soule” has ragged edges.

6. Finally, artistic talent among whalers was rare, so most authentic antique scrimshaw portraits are fairly crude, or were trace-copied from printed images. In contrast, modern day scrimshanders are all artists. The Soule tooth scrimwork is original, most likely rendered by a modern artist.

The Soule tooth scrimwork is original, most likely rendered by a modern artist.

The Soule tooth scrimwork is original, most likely rendered by a modern artist.

If this 6-inch & 9.9-ounce scrimshawed whale tooth was an authentic antique, it would be worth a few thousand dollars. As a modern scrimshaw, it is only worth a few hundred dollars.

Douglass is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in scrimshaw and is the Webmaster of the Scrimshaw Collectors Web site.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth

Join WorthPoint on Twitter and Facebook.

10 Responses to “Tells Give Away ‘Not Quite Authentic’ Antique Scrimshaw”

  1. Sandy Carlo says:

    As per Douglass Moody’s artical September 23, 2009, on whale tooth authentic Scrimshaw and fake scrimshaw is the best artical I have ever read on the subject of real verses fake. I learned so much reading his artical and it is a great benefit for anyone who collects scrimshaw to read his artical and copy it and read it again and again , especially when you go and purchase any scrimshaw or whale tooth scrimshaw, you will be more inclined to study the features of the scrimshaw with more education about the art than you ever had before. I find that Douglass Moody is a very educated person when it comes to knowing what is a real whales tooth and what is a fake whales tooth, along with the approximate years that they were created into a beautiful art form. I learned what tools they used in older and newer versions of scrimshaw. Douglass has the skillful knowledge and time invested into research of all his articals on scrimshaw and it would be a benefit for all who collect scrimshaw to read his articals. You will be happy you read and learned something from his articals, as I did. Thanks for the great artical Douglass, I will be looking for more great articals from Douglass on scrimshaw. This artical by far is the best artical I have ever read on the subject of scrimshaw that was written by Douglass Moody. Keep them coming Douglas.

  2. Jack HT Chang says:

    Many of Douglass’ points are well taken. Some others for consideration are: 1) bases of teeth with horizontal scenes may not be levelled as the teeth are not meant to be displayed vertically; 2) besides the shine of the machine polish which is obviously modern, genuine scrimshaw teeth surfaces have the marks of the shark skin or pumice throughout. They are easily seen throughout on the reflective surface; 3) very commonly you will find paint marks or dots on genuine scrimshaw as the ships were constantly repainted at sea. Scattered paint is often found with careful examination; 4) the pigment of genuine scrimshaw is rarely complete as pieces fall off with drying. It also is cracked and carry a dusty surface. Informative article; as Douglass wrote beware of the scrimshaw piece with too much information.

    • Jack – Thank you for the additional points. Before I knew about paint flecks as secondary Provenance, I had used a needle & loupe to painstakingly removed minute paint dots from a few antique scrimshawed teeth! And I was so proud of my restoration. Oh, well.

  3. Lynn Rosack says:

    Another very interesting article, Douglass.

    Now perhaps the artist who created this piece of scrimshaw might see your article and come forward!

    I was recently in Alaska and saw quite a bit of scrimshaw, but it was all crafted of walrus ivory.

  4. Linda Rowan says:

    Debbie,so what if Sandy spelled article artical.This is not an English or grammar class.I too found Mr. Moody’s artical very informative.:) Linda

  5. Maggie Turnipseed MaggieTurnipseed says:

    Great article! Very informative to those of us who are not that versed in the specifics of scrimshaw. I now have a check list to look for if I see a piece of Scrimshaw for sale. (that is not resin).

    Thank You Douglass for some great information!

  6. Thanks for a great article that can be put in my folder in case someone tries to sell me a Scrimshaw piece. Douglass and Worthpoint are to be congratulated for bringing dealers and collectors much valuable information.

  7. I have found that Douglass is always a very informative and knowledgeable expert regarding matters of Scrimshaw. His article is most helpful, and should be added to the serious collector’s files.

  8. Great article. Loaded with information that is easy to understand. A ” keeper ” Carol.

  9. Sharon Dixon says:

    I’ve been buying scrimshaw for about 20 years now and I’m always eager to learn more about the subject. I’ve been told to hold the piece up against the light and if you can see a shadow of your finger(s) through it than it’s made out of 1 piece not a laminate/composite piece. My problem is that I like the patina of Ivory and had a great piece that was made into a oval piece, I had it etched in gold so I could wear it as a necklace. It was stolen in a Rhode Island Hotel. I’ve looked for another piece but haven’t found anything that I truly like. And yes, I do love elephants.

Want a picture icon with your comment? Sign up with Gravatar to get one, or connect with your Facebook or Twitter account.

Looking for even more discussion? Check out the WorthPoint Forums.

Leave a Reply

Connect with Facebook