The Day I met Jonathan Winters…and even made him laugh.

I’ve been in the antiques business for about 30 years on Nantucket, and I’ve met a lot of celebrities coming through the shop. Some are interesting, some are a bit surreal, but most are just folk who look a little familiar. Half the time someone else has to tell me who they are, and then explain WHO they are… I guess I’m just not in the loop. But there was that one time, the exception, the time I was thrilled and blown away… the time I met Jonathan Winters.

I was the manager of an auction gallery for many years, where every Thursday and Friday of the summer I would meet the auction previewers, dashing about the room answering questions, explaining the process, taking paintings off the wall, turning furniture over, and politely smiling at how many grandmothers used to own one just like it. It was educational and sometimes stimulating, but always exhausting. One particularly hectic Friday afternoon I had been on the run for hours, barraged by people demanding quick attention, my brain just about at the point of curdling into cotton candy, when a tall man appeared at my elbow, politely cleared his throat to get my attention and softly said “Excuse me?” I turned… and met Jonathan Winters.Jonathan Winters

I couldn’t believe it. Jonathan Winters. JONATHAN WINTERS! I was of course a fan. A huge fan. Ever since I first saw him on my parent’s old black and white Hallicrafters TV, oh it was probably on Ed Sullivan or the Dean Martin Show, I was hooked! What little kid could resist this guy? Sure there were other funny people, but here finally was an adult that was zany and animated and loony and spoke to me! He saw things just the way I did, the way any six year old did. He was the coolest adult, the only adult since the Three Stooges, that was obviously on our team! He was a giant, an icon, a superhero…

He was standing right there beside me. Oddly enough, he looked exactly like Jonathan Winters. He was a tall solidly built man wearing a slightly old-fashioned checked sports jacket (like my Dad would wear at a country club). He had those chubby cheeks, receding hair, and a ferocious twinkle in his eyes. He was shy and soft-spoken. He asked with that voice in a very serious demeanor if I could tell him anything about this certain ship model that was in the auction. How old was it? What price would it likely bring?

So, in a very serious demeanor and steady voice, I answered his questions. Inside of course I’m whooping and hollering, doing backflips and bouncing off the walls, struggling to keep it together. The rest of the auction preview confusion faded away, and Mr. Winters and I had a great conversation alone in our own little world. I wish I could remember that conversation word for word. I told him about the model: what type of ship she was (a clipper), and her age (probably made in the 1950s or 60s). It was not a very good model. In fact it was a terrible model. I told him he shouldn’t buy it. He could easily find a better one. And we chatted. And I made him laugh. A couple of times. I made Jonathan Winters laugh!

A lady started hovering around us, a little impatient but not rude. She had her catalogue and was doing her “I’m next” dance. She obviously wanted to ask me a question. She looked a little familiar; she had probably been to the auction before but wasn’t really a regular. I was always good about fielding several questions at once so people wouldn’t have to wait… but I was talking to Jonathan Winters here! She left and came back, and again, and then interrupted us. She looked right at me and said “Excuse me, could I just ask a quick question about something back here?”

Jonathan Winters immediately responded with a deep frown and a very somber voice “I’ll be with you in just one minute madam. I’m answering this young man’s question right now. When I’m done with him, I’ll answer yours. I can only help one person at a time.”

She looked from me to him, and back at me. She started to get a very confused look on her face.

“You’ll just have to be patient Madam. I’ll answer your questions as soon as I’m done here.”

She’s fully confused now. Her expression said that she thought she knew who I was, that I worked there, and I was the one she should ask. Who’s this other guy?

He assured her that he would find her in the room after he finished with me. She wandered off slowly, more than a little confused. He turned to me and broke into a very naughty grin and winked. I told him he did a much better job than me, and begged him to take over for the rest of the summer. I said something else, can’t remember what, and he really laughed. A good old throw-the-head-back guffaw.

He thanked me and went on his way. I had goose-bumps. I can’t believe I met Jonathan Winters… and made him laugh!

 The next day he bought the model with an absentee bid (I think it was a present for a little kid).

Ah, Jonathan Winters…we’ll miss you. http://youtu.be/dGorCSnIHF4

Visit www.nantucketchronicle.com/ , your free online resource for everything Nantucket. By Nantucketers, for Nantucketers.

______________________________________________________________

Please excuse any annoying advertisements that may appear below this. The intrusion is on the part of the hosting cite, and is in no way endorsed by the Antiques Depot.

______________________________________________________________

You’ve got to love getting a “Get Out of Stalag Luft Free” Card! Oh the games that spies do play…

The study of history often seems to be a continuous review of one long war after another. Indeed the story of national endeavor and expansion is enwrapped in struggle and conflict. It is no wonder that the relics of these conflicts carry drama and intrigue like little else in the world of antiques. The articles have value far beyond their age and rarity, intimately tied to patriotism, sense of self, and often the gravitas of personal or family sacrifice.

Military artifacts and memorabilia comprise a varied and fascinating part of the antiques marketplace. Interest ranges from the uniforms and gear found in Army-Navy Surplus stores (and what little boy doesn’t flip over That Aladdin’s Cave?), to the munitions, insignia, medals, and rarities that feature in specialist auctions. Prisoner-of-war hand crafted folk art is particularly fascinating and poignant.

18th Century Prisoner of War Carved Bone Game Box and Snuff Box

18th Century Prisoner of War Carved Bone Game Box and Snuff Box

And then there’s vintage spy paraphernalia! Yes, James Bond’s Q Division existed… or rather the more prosaic Office of Research and Development of the OSS. They, and all their counterparts around the world, produced a wealth of sometimes clever sometimes crazy inventions in the name of intelligence. The majority of these comprise various surveillance devices such as miniature or hidden cameras, or electronic bugs. But actual historic spy gear (or tradecraft in CIA lingo) includes disguised encoding and decoding instruments, esoteric weapons (such as a lipstick gun and a pipe pistol), covert exploding devices, camouflaged poison capsules, hidden compartments (yes Maxwell, even in shoes), and even spy drones (including a robotic dragonfly and a remote controlled fish)! And you thought your tax dollars were being wasted.

"On ALL Fronts: World War II on Film" from the Harvard Film Archive.

“On ALL Fronts: World War II on Film” from the Harvard Film Archive.

A great collection of these devices and documents, focusing especially on the cold war period, can be found in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. An even better collection no doubt is held in the CIA Museum; unfortunately the latter is not open to the public, but believe it or not Langley has actually launched a You Tube channel and a website featuring a Flickr stream showing some of its museum artifacts. For those who prefer a more personal, hands-on experience, spy gear actually comes up for auction. In fact while I was in London this winter, Bonhams Auction offered a collection of vintage spy technology.

My favorite relic of espionage, the coolest undercover device ever, has got to be the World War II Monopoly game. Yes, that Monopoly game.

As the war progressed more and more allied airmen were being held prisoner in the Stalag camps throughout Europe (German prisoner-of-war camps run by the Luftwaffe air force). In spite of never- ending escape attempts, the soldiers were usually recaptured wandering lost around the countryside before local resistance fighters could come to their aid. The war office saw that maps were desperately needed to aid escape. But how to get them into the hands of the prisoners? And how could they make them durable enough to not tear from repeated folding? Or fall apart when wet? And not compromise the escapees with loud paper rustling noise as they consulted their maps? Someone thought “Why not silk?”

As luck would have it, the English firm of John Waddington Ltd. had just perfected the process of quality printing on silk. The firm was happy to aid the war effort and began printing silk maps detailing escape routes through every part of Germany and Italy where prisoners were held. The maps could be scrunched into a very tiny parcel, and were intended to be hidden in the heels of aviator’s boots.

Pair of World War I Leather Aviator Boots.

Pair of World War I Leather Aviator Boots.

But Waddington also held the UK licensee from Parker Brothers to manufacture Monopoly. Clever minds went to work and soon there was a highly top secret program making Monopoly sets with an escape map hidden inside one of the playing tokens! Other tokens held a miniature magnetic compass and a two piece metal cutting file. The stacks of fake money actually held quantities of large denomination German, Italian and French currency money. The games were distributed under the Geneva Convention to prisoners of war by fictitious aid organizations. Sounds like an escape plan to me. It is estimated that approximately 35 thousand allied soldiers successfully escaped from Luftwaffe prison camps during the war, and it has been suggested that up to a third of them were aided by their Monopoly games. Proceed Directly to Go indeed.

Actual World War II Vintage Monopoly Game!

Actual World War II Vintage Monopoly Game!

The security was amazing. A small number of Waddington craftsmen assembled these sets in a clandestine chamber, sworn to a secrecy they kept forever… or until the gambit was declassified in 2007. The soldiers themselves knew to look for an innocent red dot in the Free Parking space on the gameboard which signified a special set, and then to destroy the game after removing the secreted bits in order to prevent the Germans from discovering the ploy. At the end of the war all of the remaining sets were also destroyed, and all involved were sworn to remain mumm to safeguard the Monopoly trick so it could be used again in future conflicts.

While there’s little or no chance of finding one of the actual spy games today, it would still be a fascinating reminder of the intrigue by playing the iconic game on a period World War II Monopoly set. You will never look at a Monopoly set the same way again.

_______________________________________________________________

Please excuse any annoying advertisements that may appear below this. The intrusion is on the part of the hosting cite, and is in no way endorsed by the Antiques Depot.

________________________________________________________________

Antiques on Film: A Visit to Downton Abbey.

A period drama is a right proper feast of antiques. The proper choice, use and display of period antiques are as important to the production as the dialogue, costuming and historical accuracy. When the research is done right, the period set of a film is a work of art in its own right. The set can also be quite educational, showing antiquated objects as they were used or appreciated during their original period.

The famously successful Downton Abbey provides a beautiful illustration of using antiques correctly… of getting it spot on. Sure the choices are correct, the assemblages make sense, and every room we see has been furnished entirely appropriate to the time period. But decorating the set is the easy part.

More subtle and more important is how the antiques are used, how they feature in the daily life of the characters. Close attention eventually shows how the antiques actually go a long way to molding the characters themselves. They are part and parcel to the fundamental lifestyle we are observing, including their manners and morals, their work and leisure, the very fabric of their daily lives. The plot itself, upon reflection, could not develop independent of the antiques. In other words, there’s no mistaking which character belongs where: Lord Grantham lives in the Gothic Revival manor house, Mr Taylor resides in the room over the carriage house, and someone squatting in an East End dosshouse just wouldn’t be allowed on the property at all.

Look at life below stairs: how most of the long day’s hours are spent in the use and maintenance of the antiques. Never an idle moment for Daisy Mason, the house maids and footmen! There is at hand an implement or device for nearly every activity or want in the period life, and nearly each piece calls for an endless cycle of cleaning and oiling, buffing and polishing, waxing and mending… you can understand vividly now the sweat and tears that went into that deep patina so prized today!

Life above stairs is likewise intimately tied to a never-ending series of actions, almost rituals, which form the daily routine, all dependent upon the physical culture (in other words the antiques). Just the basic maintenance of life, the needs of room and board and attire, is so time-consuming and one expects exhausting for the toffs, let alone the poor valet and lady’s maid. One wonders whose time is more consumed by all this: the master’s or the servants. It’s a wonder anything ever got done in business or empire, aside from dressing and eating!

19th C. Rosewood Gentleman's Traveling Toiletry Case, with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay and fitted interior.

19th C. Rosewood Gentleman’s Traveling Toiletry Case, with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay and fitted interior.

Think back on all those scenes with the family arising and preparing for their day: all the fuss and bother with an elaborate morning toilet and attire. Remember the bachelor chests and linen presses? The layers upon layers of clothing whose names we can’t even remember? The detachable cuffs and collars, and the special fitted boxes to hold them? The sad irons and goffering irons, skirt lifters (we actually have one at the shop patented by the Duchess of Windsor!), pins and brushes beyond description, and all those other clever little gadgets and devices we no longer recognize… the fundamentals of daily life just a few generations past.  Never mind  all the bits and bobs a lady uses for her cosmetic needs, think about just how many different sized and styled brushes a gentleman required to become presentable!

The same bustle of activity (pardon the pun) is repeated for the afternoon, evening, every special engagement, and of course retiring. The sheer volume and variety of clothing, dressing implements and accessories is boggling, let alone the specialized furniture to enclose them all, the caddies and etui to organize them, the tools and devices to care for them, mend them and keep them serviceable and pristine. The very lifestyle not only utilizes, but is in fact dependent upon and in many cases the result of the antique accoutrements.  It would be hard for us today to even imagine such a routine of daily life, were it not for the surviving antiques which quite literally provide a first-hand glimpse into our history.  It’s hard enough for us today to just learn the vocabulary that was required… one would never make it to the ball on time if you kept stumbling along with “I say Jeeves, have you seen that thing-a-ma-jig for straightening the whats-it on my do-hickey?”

And then there’s the dining! No wonder such a large staff was needed to prepare, serve and clean-up after the daily series of breakfast, tea, dinner, tea, supper, brandy and port, tea, and whiskey (the nightcap of course).  Remember that even a humble lower middle class or artisan’s home would keep at least a cook, a maid and perhaps a manservant.  I’ll leave this discussion of dining for another blog (or series of blogs), and just mention one example here: something simple and self-contained, a matter of just one course and minimal cooking… how about tea for instance.

Gorgeous George III Sterling Teapot by Peter & William Bateman, London, 1813.

Gorgeous George III Sterling Teapot by Peter & William Bateman, London, 1813.

Right then: the cook has to boil up the kettle and the second kettle; the butler has to unlock the tea caddy or poi, select and blend the tea leaves requested or appropriate for the time of day and the nature of the guests; the cook or trusted assistant (no doubt having served at least ten years in intense understudy of the tea process) now must spoon precisely the correct amount of loose leaves into the tea pot and fill with water near but not quite boiling; the butler or senior maid gathers the tea pot, hot water kettle on hinged stand, covered sugar bowl (filled with the precious sugar just nipped off the sugar cone kept in its locked caddy), milk pitcher (most likely warmed to just above body temperature), and slop bowl (to receive the spills of cold tea prior to refilling a cup), plus various utensils including a tea strainer and under-plate, sugar tongs, and stirring spoon, arrange neatly on a matching tray and deliver to the morning room (or dining room or study or library or madam’s sitting room or master’s sitting room or the conservatory or the solarium or… you get the idea); since we all realize it would be simply barbaric to take tea without at least a digestive, there must also be a second tray with biscuits, scones, cakes or sandwiches (depending upon the time of day and the inclination of the host) arranged on appropriate plates, with the necessary serving slice, knife, fork and tongs; meanwhile a junior maid has laid the tea table with the necessary tea cups and saucers, cup plates, tea cake dishes, dessert knives and  forks, demi-tasse or tea spoons, serviettes… have I forgotten anything? No doubt. The actual pouring and serving, refilling of the pot, spilling and refilling of cups, will be done by a junior maid, senior maid, valet, housekeeper, butler, or even the hostess herself, depending upon the social status of any guests; then the whole caboodle need be taken away to the kitchen, cleaned, dried and polished bright in ready for the next call for tea. This might be in just five minutes time. No wonder the Japanese evolved their ever so simple tea ceremony.

As we examine and appreciate period antiques, and contemplate their place in period lives, it becomes clear that such a standard of living could not be kept up. In fact at Downton Abbey we are witnessing the last gasp of this Victorian excess, as the Edwardian period fades and the world hurtles into the modern era. The new demands of modern life require efficiency and speed. Convenience and haste come to rule over style and elegance.  Some would call it progress…

Antiques on Film

We all see the world in our own way. Our senses and perceptions are unique, our thought processes idiosyncratic. In the end our differing tastes, interests and personalities are what makes life so beguiling.

My father-in-law was the Head of Mechanical Trades Department at the Cork Institute of Technology.   He lives, eats and breathes metals, fluxes, solder and welding arcs. When he watches a film or television program his attention without fail is caught by the metal object in the corner (“Stainless would’ve been much better for that!”), or grabbed when a character refers to a metal prop (“They could never use tin for that! They would have to use galvanized for it to stand a chance!”)

And woe the poor cinematographer who dared shoot a welding scene… “That’s rubbish! It’s the wrong flame altogether! They could never weld that iron at that temperature! Are you joking me?”  We all have memories from our youth of our parents and their favourite sayings: my wife and her siblings can’t glimpse a welder or cutter at work in a film without warning “Don’t look at the flame!!!”

As for me it’s antiques. My long suffering wife has sat at my side in theatres and sitting rooms for nearly two decades and listened to me admire that chair the murderer is sitting on, or gripe about the villain smoking a cigar near the old master oil painting, or tense over the callous nephew tossing the gravelly object onto the Pembroke table (“Watch the finish!”)

Sherlock Holmes Room II

Period bliss: Authenticity on display at The Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street.

When the research is done right, the set design of a film is a work of art in its own right. The set can also be quite educational, showing antiquated objects as they were used or appreciated during their original period. For example in most any Dickens or Holmes it is an eye-opener to see how a miscellany of Victorian clutter can suddenly make sense, and a visually striking design, when seen in the hesitant glow of oil lamps or gas sconces. It is inspirational to see Art Deco furniture and accessories set in their period architecture (a la Poirot). It is just as exciting to visit an Arts and Crafts suite as intended in a Craftsman’s house, or to nestle in a period Adirondack lodge.

On the other hand, when they get it wrong it is worth ringing down the curtain. Once you start to pay attention you may be shocked at the mistakes that are often made. The worst is when they can’t get the style right for the time period.  How can they possibly expect us to watch George Washington and General Knox discuss Dorchester Heights while seated on Regency chairs at an Eclectic Movement desk? I mean, what did we fight a revolution for anyway?

Films cast during the Middle Ages seem to  be especially bad … all those fantasy films with dungeons and dragons and knights in shining armour, set in these wonderfully atmospheric crofter’s cottages and stone towers. Ever notice how even peasants are typically shown in quarters crowded with furnishings? The reality was an oak table. Period.  Maybe a couple of joint stools. That’s the inventory. The whole medieval enchilada.  The wealthiest folk might, after many generations, have been able to save up for a press or dresser. But all these fully furnished rooms with richly carved cabinets, upholstered chairs, sumptuous bedsteads, heroic banquet tables and tapestries… only in King Arthur’s dreams!

Let’s jump ahead and follow Daniel Day Lewis or Mel Gibson into the Colonial Period. Now we’re talking.  Remember all those films where the redcoats couldn’t find the secret document hidden in the pewter smith’s carved mahogany library cabinets, or the frontier belle flirted in her father’s well-appointed ballroom, or in a dawn raid all this furniture would get pulled out of the pioneer’s cabin to be piled on a bonfire?  In reality these folk lived pretty as humbly as their ancestors did in the Middle Ages, although dressers, settles and a few other pieces were often on the scene by now. As for the rest I fear suspension of disbelief can only go so far, no matter how clever the plot!

Now you might think I’m taking this all a mite too seriously.  But consider:  Washington Irving borrowed and stole some folk lore here and there, moved it upstate of the Catskills and gave us the forever wonderful Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Then along comes Johnny Depp, the fog and mystery rolls into the 17th Century Hudson Valley, the suspense mounts, the Headless Horseman rises in his stirrups to dash his jack-o’lantern… and then our hero sits in a circa 1820 Windsor fan-back chair and gazes adoringly at his beloved nestled beneath her 1880s patchwork quilt. Now what can Christopher Walken possibly do to terrify us more than that?

Hollywood has got a lot to answer for, but in fairness they do occasionally get it right. When they do it is not only a sensuous pleasure, it can also be a stimulating lesson in history and the decorative arts. Come back next time and join me in a visit to Downton Abbey.

Much Ado About Scrimshaw. Part Three: Whale’s Teeth and More Materials.

We began in the last blog to take a close look at elephant and walrus ivory. We discussed its characteristics and pointed out its distinguishing features. But that’s just a start. What about whale ivory? Are there other types of ivory as well? How can you tell all these apart from one another? And what about fake ivory?

Most all scrimshaw collectors are especially looking for antique pieces fashioned from Whale Ivory. This is actually the teeth from sperm (or occasionally killer) whales, which grow like all other mammal’s teeth by the laying of concentric strata of dentin beneath the rough cementum seen in unpolished teeth, and a layer of enamel towards the tip. The growth pattern produces a wavy wood-like grain (which can be faint or difficult to see on the surface). The teeth also have relatively deep conical root cavities which often have polyp growths on the surface. Lacking the wonders of modern cosmetic dentistry, whale’s teeth may develop a patina ranging from a light buttercream (why do you think they call that color ivory anyways?) to a fairly deep golden brown (think amber honey rather than a smoker’s smile), and can easily stain from contact with various substances.

The other tusks sometimes used in scrimshaw are much more rarely seen, and are usually identified by their shape and size. A Narwhal Tusk for example is actually formed by a fusion of the two upper incisors on males growing in a spiral. They are prized for their unique helical form. Sailors and craftsmen almost always left these tusks in their natural form and either displayed them whole (typically between five and ten feet long) or used lengths of them for walking stick shafts (or rarely other small objects or applique). The form is the key to identification here.

Wild Boar and Warthog Tusks are the huge protruding canine teeth from these wild pigs formerly ranging through much of Europe, Asia and Africa. They can grow up to seven inches or so long, have a wickedly sabre tooth tiger-ish shape, made even more dramatic by the natural fluting that runs along their length. Their most desirable feature to a craftsman was this wild shape, so once again they were usually left intact and typically used for handles on canes, corkscrews or tools. One might be lucky enough to chance upon a piece made with the much scarcer Tiger’s Teeth, having a similar curved and fluted shape but much smaller and usually having a patina more like a whale’s tooth.

Lastly and most scarce of all there are Hippo Tusks, actually the incisor and canine teeth which grown with tightly packed concentric dentin layers around a central interstitial zone, a thin layer of cementum and a broad band of enamel. They are long (up to ten inches or so), steadily curved as a segment from the arc of a circle, and creamy colored with a very fine, barely discernible grain. These teeth were rarely used because they are incredibly hard, said to be able to strike sparks from steel. When used at all they were almost always left whole, typically as supports for a Victorian dinner gong or handles.

Be aware that these tusks are still legally sold and can be easily worked with modern tools: in fact after elephant tusks they were the most commonly used ivory in the 20th century for producing buttons, handles, inlay and a variety of small applications. If you find objects made with carved or engraved hippo tusks you can be fairly confident (but not positive) that they are not antique.

As if all this wasn’t confusing enough… then there are the synthetics. Clever people have found ways of making synthetic ivory since back in the reign of Victoria Regina. The earliest was no doubt so-called Vegetable Ivory, Tagua and other certain palm nuts whose seeds are the size and shape of hen’s eggs, very hard and solid, and look very much like a smooth, grainless, darkly patinated ivory. Tagua nuts could be polished, carved, engraved, dyed and used like ivory in fashioning a variety of small objects.

Various nitro-cellulose inventions from the 1840s through 1860s culminated in Celluloid, the first proper plastic polymer. This material was moldable, workable and resilient, and quickly became popular for cutlery handles, dresser sets, boxes and more. Celluloid was marketed as French Ivory or other suggestive names, and was often made with a perfect faux elephant ivory grain. After World War II there was an explosion of various polymers, a plastic revolution, and synthetic ivories were variously made with combinations of chemical resins with organic resins, casein (a milk protein of all things), or additions of actual bone or ivory sawdust.

Since the 1970s there has been a proliferation of plastic reproduction scrimshaw made by Artek, Jurotone and a number of other companies. These are not just made of imitation ivory, they are cast in the actual form of whale’s teeth, walrus tusks, panbones or other objects. They are decorated with great scrimshaw inspired images, often copies of some of the greatest examples known in museums. What’s a new collector to do? How can you tell a genuine piece of scrimshaw from these machine-made copies? And most important of all, how can you tell a genuine antique piece of scrimshaw from a later copy or a modern piece of work? Stay tuned…

Much Ado About Scrimshaw. Part Two: The Material.

When people first become curious about scrimshaw they are usually unsure of what exactly they are looking at. After all sailors in the old days encountered and used a wide variety of objects and materials that are completely foreign to most people today. How can you tell what that thingamajig is made of? Is it bone or ivory or what? And how can you tell whether it is a genuine antique piece of scrimshaw made in the good old days of wooden ships and iron (albeit greasy) men, or is it modern, a fake, perhaps even manufactured from some kind of synthetic material untouched by human hands?

All genuine scrimshaw was made with some kind of organic material. Sailors had access to a variety of materials in their travels, prosaic to them but now alluringly exotic in our eyes. While most 18th and 19th Century scrimshaw was fashioned with whale’s teeth, baleen or whale bone, sailors also used walrus and occasionally elephant tusks, narwhal tusks, wild boar and hippo tusks, tortoise shell and dermal bones, sea shells, shark skin, fish bills , coconut shells, ostrich eggs, and various tropic woods. Many of these are immediately obvious and easy to identify, but others can pose a mystery to someone just starting their exploration.

            True ivory is very rare in nature, actually found today only in elephant tusks, and formerly in the paleolithic mastodon and mammoth tusks. Walrus tusks are very similar, and whale’s teeth (as well as narwhal, boar and hippo tusks) look very similar and are commonly called ivory, but are actually just teeth, sharing the same growth derivation and related structure to all other mammalian teeth.  Then there is bone, often looking so much like ivory when it is used for handles, inlay or small carvings. All these materials were once living and growing, arising from a cellular structure rather than a polymer laboratory. Like all organic matter these objects are distinctive from everything else on earth, and when examined will reveal clues to their identity. It’s just a matter of knowing what to look for… with the help of a 30X magnifying lens. Sounds simple, don’t it?

Unlike smooth ivory, all bone has a grain of dark speckles or flecks arranged in interrupted striations. Where a tooth is only alive in its root, all of a bone is living connective tissue and so is permeated with blood vessels running through it. In an old piece of bone these vessels have dried out and leave a distinctive grain darkened by dried organic materials and usually visible to the naked eye. If you look at bone through a good magnifying lens you’ll find those stained striations as well as a series of pockmarking canals and tiny cavities. Os identificatious! Whale bone was very highly vascularized compared for instance to cow bone (maybe that’s why Elsie never took to diving after giant squid), and so whale bone has a busier, darker more noticeable grain that cow bone. The grain is stronger in the softer porous bones like           ribs, and can be so faint in the denser bones like the panbone (the huge broad base of the jawbone) to be often confused with ivory.

            Elephant ivory is quite distinct. The tusks are made of a dentin, a matrix of 30% collagen and 70% minerals; unlike teeth there is no surface enamel, but there is a thick coating of cementum “bark” which is usually worn off towards the tip. The tusk grows by concentric layers of calcified dentin, producing a characteristic cross-hatch grain: picture a tic-tac-toe field made of alternating lighter and darker squares repeating on and on. While the faint and subtle surface striations can easily be lost in the patina or hidden by carving, the end grain is quite distinctive.

Elephant ivory was considered the best quality ivory and highly prized by carvers and craftsmen in both Europe and Asia. Sailors on trade routes to Africa and Asia would no doubt have occasionally run into elephant tusks, but realistically their access to this material would have been pretty limited. Today you will find a lot of antique utensils, boxes and carvings made from this ivory by professional artisans over the centuries, but when you examine a piece of purported sailor’s folk art and find it was made from elephant tusk you should be very, very suspicious. In theory it could be genuine but you should tread carefully.

            Walrus ivory is also extremely distinct. The tusks are actually derived from the upper canine teeth and are composed of a central core of highly mineralized osteodentin or secondary dentin which looks like marble or oatmeal, an outer layer of primary dentin, a dense and smooth layer of cementum, and a surface layer of enamel (which may be worn off to a greater or lesser extent). Walrus tusk cementum is prone to develop longitudinal cracks which will continue down into the dentin. While the surface is smooth and dense (it has even less grain than elephant), that wild granular core reminiscent of marble… if the marble was made of rock hard tapioca (kind of like how momma used to make) is diagnostic. Since the primary dentine is relatively thin on the tusk, articles made of walrus ivory seem to always have the marbled core visible somewhere on the piece, along with those longitudinal cracks. Seek and ye shall find.

The history of the whale fishery saw followed the hunt to ever more remote seas, so that by the Civil War whalers had largely shifted their efforts from the Southern Oceans to Arctic. While chasing the bowhead whale for its oil and massive baleen, and they also took a great number of walrus tusks and seal pelts. As a result walrus ivory is seen not only in Eskimo handicraft, but also in many pieces of antique sailor’s work.

In part three we will look at whale ivory and other materials.

Much Ado About Scrimshaw.

Scrimshaw has caught headlines in the last couple of years, and people coming through our shop are often bursting with questions about this old art. They have heard in the news about people getting arrested, reports of smuggling, people going to jail. They want to know exactly what is scrimshaw? Was it done in America? How can you tell a genuine antique piece from an imposter? For that matter how can you be sure of the material: is it ivory, bone or fake? Above all everyone wants to know about the laws. Is it still legal to buy and sell scrimshaw?  Is it ethical to collect?

 

An assortment of choice 19th Century Scrimshaw.

Scrimshaw is one of the great classic antiques of New England, as indigenous and evocative as  Elmer Crowell decoys, Townsend furniture, the crafts from Canterbury, Sabbathday Lake and other early Shaker communities, and the folk art and primitives from across the Northern states. Much in the same way that Moby Dick is one of the greatest American novels and one of our signature contributions to world literature, scrimshaw itself is regarded as a quintessential American tradition among the great folk art of the world.

A collection of antique Jagging Wheels

The history of scrimshaw is bit foggy. The word itself comes from Scandinavia and means… eh, we’re not really sure. The definition seems to have been lost in the scuppers long, long ago. There are a few theories kicking about, but the consensus leans towards a meaning akin to killing time or horsing around. The idea is that when it came to sailors, their idle hands got up to something no more devilish than whittling, or more precisely in this case, scratching and engraving images on pieces of scrap ivory or bone.

There is of course an unbroken tradition of working with ivory and bone among many native peoples across North America and Eurasia. There have also been skilled ivory artisans in many European countries as far back as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Dieppe and Augsburg in particular, but also Scandinavia, Russia, Southern Germany and Italy. Nevertheless scrimshaw as we have come to know it today is overwhelmingly American. Scrimshaw is intimately tied to the historic culture and lore of the whalers under sail; the scrimshanders themselves and their art was unique and very different from what was seen with elephant ivory.

19th Century Dieppe carved pocket watch hutch.

So what exactly are we talking about here? To the purist Scrimshaw refers only to pieces of marine ivory or bone engraved by sailors on board ship. Some of the ultra-orthodox would further insist that only pieces crafted by American sailors qualify. Most serious collectors would insist that proper scrimshaw must be on a whale’s tooth, walrus tusk, baleen or piece of bone from a whale or some other marine mammal. Some collectors will make a distinction between proper scrimshaw and pieces that were carved rather than engraved. Most all collectors recognize a difference between scrimshaw and Napoleonic prisoner of war pieces made from soup bone.

I’m a bit more liberal. I don’t think a sailor onboard the Charles W Morgan back in the 1850s  would have made a distinction between the scratching he was doing on a sperm whale tooth and what he had done on a piece of horn or antler… or ostrich egg… or coconut shell… or even a handy piece of hard tropic wood. I think that same sailor would question your sanity if you suggested that his work was genuine, but not any work done by a whaler out of Cornwall or Brest. And I am sure that same sailor would want to shanghai a taste of whatever grog you were sipping if you tried to tell him the pieces he made while dockside or elsewhere ashore wasn’t real scrimshaw. We have to realize that every aspect of sailors’ lives, both ashore and at sea, and all they experience, manifests itself and breathes life into their folk art.

In part two we’ll look at how to identify a genuine piece of scrimshaw.