Treasures: Contemporary scrimshaw sperm whale tooth features beautiful design


Dear Helaine and Joe:

I am wondering if you can help me. My brother has had this piece for several years and neither he nor I know anything about it. Do you have any information?

Thank you.

J. C., Saratoga, California

Dear J. C

First of all, to answer today’s question in the simplest of terms, this appears to be a sperm whale’s tooth. It looks like it may be a real one and not one of those plastic or composition fakes we see from time to time.

The elaborate decoration on the tooth is called “scrimshaw.” But we have serious questions about how old this tooth is and who did the scrimshaw work.

At this point a little background information would be helpful. There were essentially three reasons for people to hunt whales in the 19th and early 20th centuries:

— For the whale oil taken from the whale’s blubber or fat and used in lamps, for lubrication and in soap

— For ambergris (a substance formed around the squid beads in the whale’s intestines) used for perfumes, cosmetics and aphrodisiacs

— For spermaceti, which was used in candle-making and ointments both for cosmetic and medical purposes

The sperm whale gets its name from spermaceti (once thought to be whale semen), which comes from a huge organ located in the whale’s head. It is said by one source that a small car could be parked in the spermaceti organ. Another maintains that the organ can hold as many as 1,900 liters of this waxy substance while another says the amount is up to four tons of this special oil.

The sperm whale is one of the few types of whales with actual teeth and has as many as 52 in its lower jaw, which fit into sockets in the toothless upper jaw. In their spare time (often at night), sailors on whaling ships often carved whale byproducts. Whale bone might be carved into a whale figure, whale baleen (a part of the whale’s filter feeding system) might be engraved with harbor or whaling scenes, and sperm whale’s teeth might be engraved with images that range from pretty women to sailing ships.

The engraving work on whale bone, baleen, walrus tusks and sperm whale teeth is called scrimshaw. Sailors rubbed candle black, soot, tobacco juice or ink onto the surface so the engraving could be seen. Examples created by sailors while on a whaling ship are prime examples of American folk art. One or two of the finest examples have brought prices ranging in the mid-$100,000s range. One brought close to $500,000.

Unfortunately, the piece in today’s question does not fall into this exalted category. We believe it is relatively contemporary and not engraved by a sailor in his spare time on a whaling ship.

But that does not mean it has no value. Indeed, contemporary scrimshaw sperm whale teeth often sell for more than $1,000. We believe the beautiful piece belonging to J. C. should be valued in the $1,200 to $1,500 range.

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