Thursday’s Scrimshaw Identification Challenge:

Is this an authentic piece of scrimshaw?

(as always, click to enlarge)

Provenance: the guy who brought this purchased it off of ebay from a dealer out of Honolulu. He did a bit of research on it, thought it was pretty neat, and, comforted by a money-back guarantee, decided to take a risk

Description: the handle is made from bone (you can tell bone from ivory because bone generally has capillary specks). The metal of the blade is ferric (just put a magnet up to it), which means it is partly or completely composed of of iron. The bone handle seems to be filled with a non-ferric metal, perhaps lead.

The knife was probably meant to be a skinning knife, hence the wide blade that allows space for a person’s fingers to keep clear when making cuts, and notches on the back of the blade for tearing hide.

There are a number of images carved into the knife. On the blade itself is a rather buxom mermaid, who—unfortunately—doesn’t show up too well on my picture.

On the handle is a wide spiral pattern, in between which is written the author’s name, the date, the ship, along with a carving of a little American flag and a hopeful little sperm whale.

What’s your diagnosis? It’s nearly impossible to tell whether or not a work is authentic based on a picture; you’ve really got to handle the object. So if you guessed the knife is authentic, you can comfortably blame the photo.

Here’s how you can tell it’s fake:

  1. The metal is still burred, as if it were recently carved.
  2. The pits in the metal occurred before the carving did (you can tell this by looking at how the lines travel across the metal under a magnifying glass), meaning the metal first corroded, and then carved. Why would a whaler carve on an unpolished knife?
  3. The dye is brown—99.9% of authentic scrimshaw uses pitch black dye.
  4. The name is inconsistent with the ship and date (you have to check actual records to find this out, or just have it miraculously memorized, like all the guys in the Whaling Library do).
  5. The handle is unworn. It is odd for a workman’s tool to be completely unused—whalers rarely bring stuff on board that they aren’t going to be using!
  6. The scrimshaw looks as if it were carved by a two-year-old. It’s really just not good scrimshaw.

So the poor guy is going to have to go see how good that money-back guarantee is. Hopefully it is good, but he made the mistake of having the knife shipped to him by FedEx. Never do this. Always use USPS. Why? Because if you ship a forgery via the United States Postal Service, you’ve officially perpetrated a federal crime, which a nice trump card to be able to pull out if you find yourself dealing with an obstinate refunder. However, if you use a private company such as FedEx, you are S.O.L.

Scrimshaw that is fake is cleverly called fakeshaw (as opposed to fungshaw, which is refers to scrimshaw carved out of fungus, which is not to be confused with funshaw, which is what I call the larger category of carved art).

In closing, here is a picture of the hopeful little sperm whale that lives on my door.

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