STATEMENT ON IVORY PROHIBITION AS RELATED TO ANTIQUE SCRIMSHAW
The Antique Scrimshaw Collectors Association consists of collector, dealers, and auction houses whose interest is the free exchange and study of the art of scrimshaw, the predominantly 19th-century whalemen’s folk art of engraving on and producing utilitarian articles from sperm whale teeth, baleen, and other encountered material in their global travels.
Until the third quarter of the 19th century, whale oil represented illumination and lubricant for the world. Spermaceti oil from the head case of the sperm whale produced the finest candles. Baleen, malleable and flexible, was the plastics of the times. The whaling industry was a major commerce for the fledgling United States.
Scrimshaw was a means to deter boredom and the long journey to and from New England to the Pacific whaling grounds. Whales may not be encountered for weeks or even months. Whaleships had a larger crew than was necessary to run the ship, render the oil, and store the barrels. The men were necessary for the whaleboats that chased and captured the whales. On board, there was much free time between whales and the necessary chores of the ship. Scrimshaw represented mementos of their trade, gifts for friends and love ones at home, and also for trade with one another. The articles of scrimshaw were quite remarkable. They ranged from simple, primitive engravings on a tooth to a swift with scores of moving joints, turned bone and teeth, and intricate inlays to construct an implement to wind yarn. The great majority of scrimshaw was anonymous lacking authorship, date, or location.
Until the 1960s, those who lived on the coasts, particularly New England, primarily collected scrimshaw. When President John F. Kennedy became an antique scrimshaw collector, the popularity escalated and prices rose logarithmically. Today, prices range from hundreds to hundred of thousands of dollars. Prior to the establishment of the Endangered Species Act, Mammal Protections Act, or CITES regulations, antiques scrimshaw was bought, sold, or traded without need for documentation. Much scrimshaw collections were passed down through many generations of a family without documentation. The great majority of authentic antique scrimshaw today lack the documentation required by the present proposed regulations that would render them illegal and without value in commerce.
Not a single whale has ever been killed to produce scrimshaw. The material of scrimshaw was a byproduct of the industry. With the moving definition of antique, within five or six years, all genuine scrimshaw will be classified as antique. All mammalian teeth, including that of man, are ivory, consisting of variable amounts of enamel, cementum, and dentine. Most have characteristic patterns that make them identifiable. More than twenty years ago, Stuart M. Frank, Ph.D., formerly Director of the Kendall Whaling Museum and Senior Curator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, began the study of scrimshaw and is the acknowledged expert in this field. His publications are scholarly treatises on the subject. He formed the Scrimshaw Forensics Laboratory® and the Scrimshaw Forensics Panel at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which is able to authenticate and certify genuine scrimshaw.
The proposed legislation unfairly punishes antique scrimshaw collectors, dealers, and auction houses and criminalizes their ownership with regulation that in retrograde fashion demands documentation never asked for in their original obtainment. In addition, the illegality virtually makes their holdings worthless without due compensation.
No one of conscience wants to see the extinction of the elephant or rhinoceros. However, a sweeping prohibition on all ivory commerce in the United States will likely have little effect, if any, on elephant and rhinoceros poaching in Africa. Until the traditional appeal of ivory to Asians, the agricultural nuisance of elephants to the African subsistence farmers, the corruption of the local African governments, and the realization that ivory control rather than prohibition is the solution to this problem, those African countries that practice ivory prohibition will continue to see a decline in their elephant populations. All the proposed ivory ban in the United States will do is deprive American citizens of their constitutional rights to due process and just compensation, deprive small businesses from income, and relegate a vibrant cultural and historic artifact worthy of intense study to a museum curiosity. This legislation, if passed as proposed, will result in litigation that will take years and millions of taxpayer dollars to adjudicate.
The Antique Scrimshaw Collectors Association believes that genuine antique scrimshaw (1) can be authenticated and certified, (2) represents objects of cultural and historic importance, especially to the State of Massachusetts where the majority of 19th century whaling originated, and (3) has never been responsible for the death of a single whale. To prohibit its trade and commerce is unfair, unconstitutional, and unconscionable.
OTHER VOICES RECENTLY PUBLISHED
In April 2017, the Cape Cod Antiques Dealer Association, in consultation with Matt Gilmore of U.S. Fish and Wildlife/Law Enforcement, published a clarification to help its members understand, interpret, and make decisions to conform with regulations currently in place in Massachusetts for the buying, selling and collecting of antique artifacts containing—in all or part—marine mammal ivory and bone. Click here to read the document.
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A statement by James Russell, President of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, regarding ivory legislation pending in Massachusetts was published on April 12, 2015.
Russell says that the proposed law unfairly targets scrimshaw and antiques, pitting art collectors against animal rights protectors. Speaking for the museum's board, he urges lawmakers to "find the common ground that protects an individual's legal assets while championing a worthy cause," making recommendations to "(1) maintain the intensity of the bill's focus on the illegal sale in the U.S. of elephant and rhino ivory; (2) protect the legal assets of Massachusetts citizens; and (3) provide a roadmap to authenticate antique ivory." Click here to see the article in its entirety.
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An article in the May 2015 issue of Maine Antiques Digest discusses new legislation regarding banning ivory that has been introduced in at least 14 states. The article states, "In many instances, the language of the bills is exactly alike, suggesting that ivory ban lobbyists have had a hand in crafting the legislation or that legislators are copying and pasting other states' bills. Major differences do exist among the states."
The article goes on to delineate the legislation proposed in each state and its status as of press time. Click here to read the full article.