How to Discern Authentic Whale Tooth Scrimshaw from Resin “Fakeshaw”

Part 1 of 3

The 1970s saw the implementation of the U.S. Federal Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), and the U.S.Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973 (FESA), each regulating the importation, the exportation, & the sale of marine animal products across State lines. Then, in 1975, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) went into effect, regulating international commerce of whale & walrus products, as well as other species.

About this time, Juratone of London, England, and a few other plastic products companies, mold-copied scores of authentic whale teeth, walrus tusks, and panbone antique scrimshaws. The original scrimshaws copied can still be found in whaling museums and private collections. A few modern artistic scrimshaws were also copied. These plaster molds were duplicated by the hundreds, and soon, thousands of mold-poured resin reproductions were being marketed. Most of these “repros” were artificially tinted to resemble the natural age patina of the originals, and the confusion began!

Luckily for us, in 1988, Doctor Stuart M. Frank (now the Chief Curator of the Kendall Collection at the New Bedford Whaling Museum), published a “monograph” entitled Fakeshaw: A Checklist of Plastic “Scrimshaw”. This is an alphabetical listing of more than 300 documented, machine-manufactured polymer copies. The current THIRD EDITION [Image #1], was published in 2001.

This “Fakeshaw” monograph is quite helpful in identifying individual repros, but collectors should also know the differentiating characteristics between authentic scrimshaw, and all fakeshaw. These differences are known as “tells”. Following are descriptions and illustrations of the most obvious tells.

1.) The root cavity of most authentic whale teeth [Image #2] are deep & conical. As a whale ages past prime, his teeth continue to grow, but gradually narrow, and the root cavities also narrow & fill-in until practically no cavity exists in very old whales.

By comparison, the root cavity of an authentic walrus tusk [Image #3] is deep and flat-bottomed. Walrus tusks grow much faster than whale teeth, and this cavity is filled with hair-like tendrils, which thicken and solidify. A tusk usually grows several inches each year, and can be worn-down nearly as fast.

In contrast, the base cavity of most fakeshaw [Image #4] is shallow & rounded. Note the discoloration of the cavity, which is from dye immersion to simulate patina on the outer surface.

2.) The “skirt” edge of a natural whale tooth is fairly sharp, thin, & can exhibit dry-out cracks due to age [Image #2], while the lip of a trimmed tooth skirt [Image #5] is usually finished smooth, generally follows the outside shape of the tooth, and is usually unstained.

3.) The tip of an authentic whale tooth is yellowish, with a definite line separating tip from the whiter ivory [Image #6]. This characteristic is called the “golden crown”. The tip may also display very sharp, thin, & short age lines, crossing from ivory to crown.

The tip of a fakeshaw tooth is the same color as the rest of the resin repro [Image #7], although artificial tinting may be evident to simulate age &/or crown. Any “age” lines are mold impressed, and usually wide & shallow, as compared to true age cracks on ivory.

4.) The “patina” (age color) of an authentic whale tooth is usually subtle but not uniform from tip to base, or side to side [Image #8]. True patina will not easily scratch-off. It is also a different color than ink of the scribed image. Usually, the older the tooth, the deeper the color: but patina is a result of both age and environment. A protected tooth may show very little patina.

The artificial age-color on fakeshaw is either quite uniform, or very blotchy, and scratches very easily, revealing white plastic [Image #9].

Often the same ink is used to “age” fakeshaw as well as color the embossed image [Image #10].

ARTEK Creations, aka Artek Gifts, ArTeK, or Artek, is a division of New Hampshire-based Riley Mountain Products. Artek resin repros [Image #11] are much more realistic in appearance than Juratone, New Juratone, Groovesport, Historycraft, History Art USA, or NYE Overseas Trading Enterprise fakeshaw.

Artek molds were never sold overseas (Asian market) when replaced by new dyes, as was common among other manufacturers. This is why so many low-detail copies can be found [Image #12] of other manufacturers.

To prevent erroneous or fraudulent representation of their repros as authentic, Artek has placed an embossed (recessed) logo exterior on skirt [Image #13], or inside “root cavity” [Image #14]. A more detailed article worth reading is entitled Scrimshaw – Real or Repro? by Bill Momsen. Another article by Rod Cardoza of West Sea Company is Scrimshaw: Is It Real? (Part II: Determining the Material).

Lastly is a “Moby Dick Scrimshaw” plastic model whale tooth kit [Image #15 & #16]. A similar plastic walrus tusk kit exists. Each contain a “clamshell” type assembly, with a separate, obviously fake cavity insert [Image #17]. The kit also contains a “scrimshaw” transfer decal, impressing tool & paint brush, dry plaster of Paris (for weighting model), & patina tint. Assembled, this item occasionally shows up on internet auctions, listed as authentic scrimshaw.

The vast majority of fakeshaw will exhibit more than one of these comparative tells. While an expert may take just a second to correctly analyze a tooth, most buyers should find several tells before a decision is made. Remember that true scrimshaw is unique (truly one-of-a-kind), while fakeshaw has virtually thousands of copies of each mold-impressed design.

Various tests for plastic have been published, such as the “hot needle” test, the “match” test, and viewing fakeshaw under black (ultraviolet) light. However, THESE TESTS USUALLY DO NOT WORK! The tests were useful when they were first published (as early as 1979), but manufacturers of fakeshaw are devious, and they are not fools. They also read test results, and change their formulas so that hot needles will not penetrate the newer polymers any better than they will penetrate real bone, a match won’t necessarily burn re-formulated resin, and it may fluoresce under ultraviolet light to a degree that only a trained expert can distinguish the difference from organic matter.

Continue to Part 2 of 3


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  1. tony says:

    hello there. i send this message because i have on whale tooth with a design. Can i send some pictures and tell me what you think. there’s a very nice design of a ship and flowers on it. give your e-mail to send some pics. thank you