Scrimshaw Whale Tooth, ca. 1840

Value (2013) | $8,000 Auction$12,000 Auction

This is a whale's tooth I first saw at my grandmother's house when I was a child, and I was fascinated with it. She told me it belonged to my great-great-uncle, who was a sea captain. Well, it turns out he wasn't a sea captain; he was a landsman. But he did serve aboard the Constellation, mostly by Africa, where they were bringing the slaves over in ships, and they would try to run down the ships. He gave this tooth to his twin brother, which was my great-great-grandfather.

Okay, so if he was on the Constellation-- it was the second one that was commissioned-- and if they were in Africa, it would have been about 1860, late 1850s.

'59, yeah.

Now, was he on board other ships earlier than that?

He was on one other ship, I believe. He died in 1859 aboard the ship and was buried at sea with full naval burial rites.

Right. So he was how old when he died?

Twenty-four. His twin lived to 90-something.

You know, the interesting thing I was thinking about just now is that he served on board basically a military vessel, because that was a war sloop, and they actually captured ships with slaves on them, but this would have come from an earlier time period.


More than likely, it was done on board a whaling ship. In the 18th century, most of the whaling was done in the northern seas, and then by the mid-19th century, they were doing a lot of the whaling in the southern seas, so it's possible that he did it earlier in his life, although he only lived to 24, or he may have gotten it from somebody that did it at an earlier time. It's kind of hard to say, but the obvious thing is that it is a great old tooth. The way they did these things, they had so much free time, they would take a sail needle or an awl or a knife or something and they would put all these images in there. What they would do is scratch it in there and then they would ink it, and that's what gave you the contrast. And the first thing I thought about when I looked at this is it has wonderful patination. That brown finish on there is something that you just can't duplicate. That comes from all these years of human hands touching it and the oils from their hands going in it, and it just gives it a color that you can't duplicate any other way. The other thing that hit me like a ton of bricks was the fact that you look for certain whistles and bells in objects like this, well, this one has the whole orchestra.


It has ships, it has houses, and over there closest to you, you've got an American eagle. That's another thing that collectors look for is American imagery in folk art. And if you turn it around and look on the back, you've got more ships. Now, luckily, this didn't come from a whale anytime recently because a lot of those are endangered species, and it's not legal for people to scrimshaw whales' teeth in today's world. Most of the ones you see are reproductions. This one obviously has lots of age, so that's not a problem on this one. And it varies from state to state, but there are a lot of federal laws and there's also international laws about it. On a scale of one to ten, for a folk art collector, this is definitely a 9.5.


The only thing it could have going for it better would be if it had more colored ink in it or if it was just a little bit more contrasty. The date I would say is 1830s, 1840s.

If that were on the tooth, would that make it more valuable?

Not necessarily, because I think that it just... It's such a wonderful thing, and we know that it is a real thing and that it's old. That said, at auction, I would guess that this would probably bring-- and I've talked to my colleagues back at the table, and we all felt pretty comfortable with the fact that it would probably be in the $8,000 to $12,000 range.

Oh, my word! I am surprised.

Appraisal Details

Ken Farmer & Associates
Charlottesville, VA
Appraised value (2013)
$8,000 Auction$12,000 Auction
Boise, ID (June 29, 2013)
19th Century

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