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Collecting Ivory Carvings!

Updated on October 7, 2014

Basic Rules For Collecting Ivory Carvings!

If you decide that you would like to collect items made from ivory, there are a few rules that you need to be familiar with. For those of you who have been collecting for years, I would like to invite you to share some of your expertise through our guestbook.

There are quite a few laws that govern the buying and selling of ivory. These laws are needed to prevent the destruction of many forms of wildlife due to poaching and killing animals just for the ivory trade. I whole-heartedly agree with these laws, but there has been a lot of confusion about collecting ivory because these laws can be hard to understand.

Here at Collecting Ivory Carvings, we will do our best to explain what you need to know to comply with the law and still enjoy the beautiful ivory carvings that collectors love.

We'll also try to lead you in the right direction for purchasing books and finding suppliers of such items as scrimshaw and other vintage ivory carvings.

It can get a bit confusing when trying to understand the laws according to CITES so I will be trying to do a simple write-up to help answer some of the questions that I get about these laws. Please have a little patients though. It may take me a while.

Testing Ivory!

How about a little help?

I get a lot of questions about how you can test an item to be sure that it is ivory.

Over the years I have been told of a few ways to test for ivory with a hot needle. I still don't know for sure which way is the right way or even if they are true tests. If you have a sure way of testing for ivory, please share it with us in the "comments" section below! Comments will not show up until I approve them.

1. Heat a needle red hot and poke the "ivory" in a spot that is not noticeable. Plastic will melt. Real ivory will not show any sign of having been poked with the hot needle.

2. Heat a needle red hot and poke the "ivory" in a spot that is not noticeable. Plastic will melt outward, leaving a bump on the surface. Ivory will leave a nice neat little hole with no swelling.

3. Heat a needle red hot and poke the "ivory" in a spot that is not noticeable. Plastic will smell like burnt plastic. Ivory will smell like burnt hair.

I have a real scrimshawed sperm whale tooth and the hot needle won't make a mark on it, but then the dragon boat pictured below is made of bone and a hot needle will not mark it either.

Laws Governing Ivory

While I can not give any legal advice, I will give my interpretation as to what I believe to be legal in the buying and selling of ivory. For your own protection, I would advise you to read up on the laws and regulations listed on CITES, USA ivory regulations and your states regulations.

The Ivory Trade is regulated by a variety of laws which vary from state to state and country to country. International trade in Ivory - between countries, is regulated by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (C.I.T.E.S.) Formed in 1973, the aim is to establish worldwide controls over plants & wildlife that require protecting. Within the USA, Ivory trade is regulated by such laws as: U. S. Endangered Species Act of 1972 regulated by the Dept. of the Interior/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 administered by National Marine Fisheries Service.

There are "restricted ivories" that are listed in the CITES International Treaty. These ivories are restricted because they come from endangered species. While The United States complies with CITES treaty, they also have Federal laws that regulate buying and selling these ivories. Also, some states have their own laws and regulations on these items. Specific laws and penalties for violations for each type of ivory can be found on each agencies websites and we'll try to provide links to the proper sites so you can become aquainted with them.

Elephant ivory or AEI as it is referred to is restricted by the CITES treaty, as well as any items made from it. African elephants are on the CITES endangered species list and the import and export of AEI is regulated. While US Federal laws allow for interstate commerce on pre-CITES AEI, it restricts the import and export of this ivory. Some states require a special license for anyone trading in AEI. Visit the CITES page governing the African Elephant. You will need to type "African Elephant" in their search box.

Walrus Tusk & Whale Teeth & Narwhal Tusk or "Marine Ivories", or items made from marine ivory can only be sold to buyers in the same state. The Marine Mammal Protection Act is a law which prohibits non-Alaskan Natives from possessing raw walrus ivory that has not been handcrafted by Alaskan Natives. Walrus ivory tusk is highly regulated by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. Raw walrus ivory predating the Dec. 21, 1972 law, tusks bearing the Alaska state seal, ivory that has been carved or scrimshawed by an Alaskan native (Eskimo) are legal to buy, possess, and sell inside the sellers state, (intrastate). Raw walrus ivory obtained after 12/21/72 is not legal to buy or sell unless both parties are Eskimo (it is legal to own). The interstate sale of items derived from whale teeth (scrimshaw or unworked), and narwhal are also highly regulated inside the USA. The import/export of marine ivory to or from the USA is prohibited. No federal documentation is required to sell marine ivory intrastate (inside your state). The importing and exporting of marine ivory items is also regulated by CITES. Documentation required for the sale of marine ivory from country to country and varies depending on the country. You would need to check with the proper authorities in each country.

Scrimshaw

Scrimshaw is the name given to handiwork created by whalers made from the byproducts of harvesting marine mammals. It is most commonly made out of the bones and teeth of sperm whales, the baleen of other whales, and the tusks of walruses. It takes the form of elaborate carvings in the form of pictures and lettering on the surface of the bone or tooth, with the engravings highlighted using a pigment, or small sculptures made from the same material. The making of scrimshaw began on whaling ships between 1745 to 1759 on the Pacific Ocean, and survived until the ban on commercial whaling.

Pictured here, is a sperm whale tooth from my collection that was brought home by a soldier during WWII. It is signed "DIA'S" by the artist, and while it is not as valuable as scrimshawed whale teeth from the 18th or 19th century, it is still a valuable addition to any collection of scrimshaw.

An article in Wikipedia says, "Originating in an era when sperm whales were initially plentiful only to be hunted to near collapse, scrimshaw no longer is an artform utilizing an easily renewable animal resource, but one that is susceptible to contraband. Now, the Endangered Species Act and international conventions restrict the harvest and sale of ivory to try to reverse the scarcity of ivory-bearing animals."

"19th and 20th century scrimshaw, scrimshaw crafted before 1989 (elephant) or before 1973 (sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory etc.) is legal. It is prohibited after that year for commercial import in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Additionally, walrus tusks bearing the Alaska State walrus ivory registration tag, and post-law walrus ivory that has been carved or scrimshawed by a native Alaskan Indian (Eskimo), is legally available.

Finally, any ivory considered ancient, such as 10,000 to 40,000 year old mammoth ivory, is completely unrestricted in its sale or possession."

"Scrimshanders and collectors acquire legal whale teeth and marine tusks through estate sales, auctions and antique dealers. To avoid illegal ivory, collectors and artists check provenance and deal only with other established and reputable dealers. Scrimshaw that is found to have been illegally sourced may be seized by customs officials worldwide, dramatically loses value and is very hard to re-sell, as the limited channels through which collectible scrimshaw passes serves as a check on unscrupulous persons. As with any other fine art form, it is usually possible for experienced museums, auction houses or other experts to perceive a fake."

Be careful when buying scrimshaw ivory whale teeth! There are a lot of reproductions out there that might be good for a converstion piece, but are only worth a small fraction of what a genuine ivory tooth is worth.

Carved Ivory

People have ornamentally carved ivory since prehistoric times. Ivory carvings have been discovered in the tombs of ancient Chinese rulers, and since the late Roman era ivory has been a popular for carving Christian art. Many boxes, that held religious relics, or costly jewelry were made of ivory. The ivory was usually obtained from the tusks of live elephants in India, and in Roman times, from North Africa. Ivory harvesting led to the extinction, or near-extinction of elephants in much of their former range.

East Asian jewelry and ethnic crafts account for most of the ivory carved in the last 200 years. Large amounts of ivory continues to be used for East Asian traditional art and ethnic hand stamp dies, even though African and Asian elephants are near extinction.

Vintage carved ivory is for the most part, extremely expensive! If you find a piece of "carved ivory" for a very low price, be weary. It is probably fake! But then, if you are thinking of buying an expensive piece of carved ivory, you should also be weary. Unless you are completely confident in the seller, you should get another "expert" to check it out.

As with any item of value, there are many great looking fakes in the marketplace. Don't be timid about seeking expert advice. It is better to pay for an expert appraisal than to end up with a worthless resin copy.

My Newest Piece Of Scrimshaw

I recently acquired this piece of scrimshaw for my collection. I was told that it was bone but other then that, I know very little about it.

I'll add a few more pictures later but on the other side it says "The Whaler Indian Off Tahiti". If anyone knows anything about this piece, maybe you can give me some history?

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Carved Bone Dragon Boat?

Here is a picture of a dragon boat that I have. I gather that it is bone and not ivory because I have seen several very similar boats sell on eBay for anywhere from $300 to as much as $800 and eBay does not allow selling ivory. When I first saw one listed on eBay, I was shocked at the price it went for but I have been watching since then and it seems to be the going price for them.

This dragonboat is approx. six inches long. It does have a little minor damage as two of the oars have been broken off and it appears that there may have been one more flag at one time. A few of those sold on eBay had similar damage and it did not appear to have affected there value.

While I do not wish to list this on eBay, if anyone is interested init, please contact me.

jbaguss@yahoo.com
jbaguss@yahoo.com

More Ivory That Is For Sale.

A visitor has this item for sale. If interested let me know through the "contact lensmaster" link above and I will pass along the info.

Helpful Links

As this site is not large enough and I am not smart enough to know everything about ivory, I've added these links that might be helpful.

Can You Help?

One of our visitors has these two bowls (next five pictures) that were left to her and she could use some info about them, such as country of origin, makers, age, value, etc.

Any help would really be appreciated. The measurements for the animal one is 83mm across, 57mm high & 2mm thick. The tiger one is 84mm across, 54mm high & 4mm thick. (All measured in mm) They each have markings on the outside & inside of the base as I have

tried to describe in one picture.

If you can help, please leave info in Guestbook or contact me through contact button above.

Marks' Whale Tooth!

Here is a picture of the carving that Mark would like some info about. If you know anything about it, please reply to him in the guestbook.

Please share your collection with us or just visit with other ivory collectors. If you enjoyed your visit, please give the site a rating point by clicking on the "like" button below or at the top of this page.

Guestbook!

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    • profile image

      shanmuga pillai 19 months ago

      i have curved ivory indian idols with wooden base .. beautifull handiwork was there in home for the past 3 generation . can u tell us .. an appraisals service in INDIA ( ASIA ) and the law in INDIA .. can it be appraised in INDIA .. yes SERVICE charge will paid .. hope i get the answer soon

    • profile image

      anon 21 months ago

      Hey there I have a carved ivory piece that I would love to know more about but am having trouble researching. Can I please have ur email address so I can send u a photo and get some advice?

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 4 years ago

      @anonymous: If your items are pre-ban, which it sounds like they are, you should be fine in selling. Sorry, but it would be impossible to value them without seeing them.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      While living in Juneau, AL in the late 40's and early 50's I collected quite a few walrus ivory pieces of local wildlife. Most are in excellent condition. I also have 3 eskimo dolls with carved faces and real fur and hid outfits. I am making a trip to Juneau Jan. 6, 2013. After reading your comments it sounds like I cannot sell my pieces except in Alaska. Can you help me find out what they are worth. They are so old the artists did not sing them at that time.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have a real authintic ivory tusk very old Carved by an Italian Artist it is valued @85,000 DALLORS I would like to sell it for a lot less I need money right now for personal reasons.Who would I talk to about selling it. Can anyone help or is anyone interested in buying it? contact me@autosolutions09@aol.com or call 209-614-3045

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Lynn,

      Jackson's International would be happy to look at your ivory pieces and provide a free valuation. If interested, please email me at kimberly.hong@jacksonsauction.com with photographs and relevant information. I'd be more than happy to help.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Jackson's International Fine Art Auction on November 13th &14th. Showcasing a large amount of carved ivory pieces---Continental and Asian. Check out our online catalog.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      i have a pair of deer shaped ivory carvings...i want to sell it, but its restricted here in the philippines...

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Since I could never offer you what they might be worth, I would suggest that you read through the comments here. There are one or two places mentioned that may be able to help you out.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have a beautiful bracelet, ivory, scrimshaw disks connected by elastic....as well as a magnificent ivory engraved walrus tusk....both purchased in Anchorage at the Native Indian Hospital gift shop in late 60/s early 70/s. As both are quite unique, I imagine they have some value. How to I go about learning more; I am of an age where I am looking to find loving homes for some of my specialty items.

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Thanks for the comment. Everyone is intitled to their opinion.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have a very diverse collection , just picked up a swordfish bill that has a series of polar bears carved into it. Very cool We lived in the Canadian Arctic for 30 years. I am going to get a great white sharks mouth next.

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Thanks for the info. I'll give the needle a try. I just gave a couple of bucks for it so I can enjoy it even if it is just resin. I'll have to add to my article so everyone will know after I do the test.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I don't think that you scrimshaw of the Whaler India is ivory, or even bone. I think that it is resin as I have one that has the exact shape and image, which I have owned for approximately 30yrs. If you heat a needle and try to push it into the piece if it is real it will not penetrate but with resin it will.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Shame on all of you for treasuring and collecting anything made of ivory. How can you value something that has brought so much death and destruction to so many intelligent sentiment beings?

      When I see ivory carvings in people's homes it makes me want to puke. Like collecting human skin lamps, which also are rare and expensive. Think I'll start a web site for how to insure skin lamps are authentically from Nazi era. They really do so much to brighten a room, and the fakes just don't give off the same warm glow.

    • indigomoth profile image

      indigomoth 5 years ago from New Zealand

      I haven't collected any ivory myself, but I'm glad that people do. I'd hate for such beautiful things to be unloved. But, it's good to follow the rules because poaching is still a serious problem. Thanks for the fascinating lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Lynn,

      Thank you for contacting OâGallerie regarding the auction value of your ivory carvings.

      OâGallerie would be pleased to provide informal auction estimates free of charge to potential consignors of property that OâGallerie may consider appropriate for consignment to us and has a minimum $100 per item auction value. For this service, I ask you to send clear color images; detailed descriptions including dimensions; your name, address and telephone number. Information can be e-mailed to tom@ogallerie.com or mailed to:

      Tom OâGrady

      OâGallerie Auctions

      228 NE 7th Ave.

      Portland, OR. 97232

      Thanks again for contacting OâGallerie Auctions.

      Sincerely,

      Thomas D. OâGrady

      President/CEO/Co-Owner

      Furniture & Decorative Arts Dept.

      OâGallerie Auctions

      tom@ogallerie.com

      Cell: 503-957-5507

      Visit our website at www.ogallerie.com.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have an extensive collection of Inupiat ivory carvings obtained in the Kuskoquim Valley and along the Bering Sea of Alaska. Most pieces were purchased between the mid sixties and mid seventies. I am looking for a place to have them appraised and marketed. Any input would be appreciated.

    • profile image

      jetb5758 5 years ago

      I've been collecting scrimshaw for years and enjoyed your lens. I need to set one up about scrimshaw, too. Thanks for the info!

    • profile image

      mark-gronemeyer-7 5 years ago

      Has anyone seen a carving like this ?

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Has anyone seen a carving like this ?? I think it's a sperm whale tooth but I have never seen a similar one.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @Brewsterboy: Thanks. The age is one of the problems since it does not have paperwork. Just because my mother purchased it 30 years ago doesn't mean the piece is only that old - it could have been made 200 years ago for all we know. I think I read your email on another post so I guess I'll send the pics there since I don't see an attach option on this posting screen. Thanks again!

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: If you have a picture, I can post it. If it is only 30 years old, you may have problems with selling it unless you have proper paperwork. There are a lot of rules regulating ivory since the seventies. See articles above.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have a carved ivory incense burner which I want to sell. I don't know what animal it is from or how old it is. My mother bought it almost 30 years ago. It has 2 Chinese symbols/characters on the bottom (again, not sure if it's Chinese - could maybe be Hindi, and I don't know if the symbols are words or maybe the artist's initials). Without knowing the animal, the age, or even what culture it came from, I have no idea what to even classify it as.

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: There are a couple of links above in the section named "Laws Governing Ivory". You can go to the Cites website and find the information that you need. I can try checking on the laws for your state if you want to let me know what state you live in.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @Brewsterboy: It is my understanding that documentation may be required - I don't have any, other than my stamped passport indicating date I exited the Congo.

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: You shouldn't have any problems with ivory that is that old. Last year I bought a scrimshawed tooth at a garage sale.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have two pieces of carved ivory, acquired in 1968, in DRC? What hoops do I need to go through in order to sell them?

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Sounds like your teeth should be ok but you might check out this link to read more about it and get links to check into it further.

      "19th and 20th century scrimshaw, scrimshaw crafted before 1989 (elephant) or before 1973 (sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory etc.) is legal. It is prohibited after that year for commercial import in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      i have a bear head carvedalmost identical with pink tongue andteeth protruding out old piece with tiger eye eyes and onyx nose intrequite carved hairs probley same carver wheredid you get these tiger cups?

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      While going through my father's estate I found what appears to be two sperm whale teeth, one polished and one raw, neither carved. I have read about a few ways of testing for authenticity, the only one I am equipped to attempt is the "hot needle" test, which I have yet to try. If they turn out to be genuine I am concerned about the legality of owning and selling them. My father served in the US Navy in the pacific from the 1940s to the '70's, he also came from a seafaring family in Massachusetts. Other than that, I don't know how I could establish provenance. I would appreciate any suggestions you may have on how to proceed.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Contact Tom O'Grady at O'Gallerie Auctions in Portland, Oregon. 1-888-238-0202.

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Are you looking to sell? Don't know that they would be ivory if they are marked "made in Italy". Are you certain that they are not resin?

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have two ivory or bone japanese figurines of a geisha woman holding a basket of fish and a man blowing into a large shell with a rope of shells hanging around his neck. They are not plain, but have color. They stand approx. 16 inches tall and are mounted onto a wooden stand. On the bottom, it says made in Italy. Engraved on the bottom is something written in Japanese.

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: There is a link near the bottom of the above section titled "Laws Covering Ivory". If you click on it, you should be able to find the info that you need.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I am a collector and have acquired about 50 kg of raw ivory tusks coming from a hunter in South Africa. The tusks are CITES registered and they were obtained in 1980s. What documents must i provide to take the tusks out of South Africa to an EU airport, so that my collection will not be confiscated? Any hints will be helpful, since google does not provide a clear answer.

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: If you would like, you can email me a couple of pictures and I can post them here to see if anyone is interested. You can use the contact button above and let me know your price.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have 2 Cribbage boards made from one sperm whale tooth (I believe) cut into 2 halves with scrimshaw on them. One is Eskimos harpooning a whale from a canoe and the other is harpooning a seal on the ice from a canoe maybe from Alaska? i would like to sell these as they were given to me by my Grandmother in 1971 and she is gone now. Can you advise me who to contact for selling? I live in Yakima, Wa. and can send picutres. Kristi

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: With there age, you should be ok with selling them in your own state, but sometimes you might run into trouble selling them interstate(from one state to another). Without knowing what state you live in, I couldn't look up information for your particular case. Each state has their own regulations but the US government would be the place to start. The best way to find out the regulations for your particular state would be to go to this link: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/laws/esa/text.htm. At the bottom of the page, there is a place to click to contact them. They would have the answers that you are looking for and also the information that you need to stay out of trouble. Wish I could give you a few reliable buyers but check with a few different buyers when you find them so you can get a fair price.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      My family owns two carved elephant ivory tusks that were given as a gift from a family member in the Congo during the 1960s. Considering the ban on ivory since 1989, what is the legal process if I want to appraise and/or sell them?

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Mark, It's mostly spending some time searching the internet. If you want to email me a picture or two, I can try to help you find info on it. It might be something that he picked up while in the service, if he did any military service. Also, has it been checked by anyone? There are a lot of "ivory" pieces that are really bone, plastic or a cast resin.

      China is real good at mixing a little ground up ox-bone with resin, then calling it bone or ivory.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have a small ivory carving left to me by my father i believe it to be around 46 years old and from singapore. How do i find out its value please. Also there was no paperwork with it - any idea how i can prove its age? Many thanks Mark

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Hashim,

      I don't think that you will be able to export any new ivory. It is possible to export ivory that was acquired before the seventies but there are still many laws governing both owning and selling it.

      This link might be able to get you the answers that you are looking for.

      http://www.unep-wcmc-apps.org/isdb/extra/

      Hope it helps,

      Jerry

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      selling several ivory figures from East Africa how do i go about this jerry

    • Brewsterboy profile image
      Author

      Brewsterboy 5 years ago

      @anonymous: There are a number of questions that I need to ask before I can answer your question. Selling your ivory can be a pain because of the many laws governing the sale of ivory. Questions such as age, if you have any paperwork on these pieces, are they real or repros, etc.

      Could you email me some pics at jbaguss@yahoo.com? I will get you as much info as I can.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      My dad was a sailer. He collected Ivory figurines. I inherited 12 pieces 40 yrs ago.

      How can I find out the value and how to sell them?