Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Collectors tip from one of our readers

It is fairly easy to discern ivory if you know what it does NOT look like.

Cast resin whale teeth or other cast resin pieces usually have tiny burst bubbles in them that leave small round depressions in the surface. Also, the cavity in the bottom of the tooth will not be deep and will not mirror the contour of the outside. Best test is to hold the item about 2 inches over a stove burner. As it heats up it gives off a noxious plastic odor.

Bone, which is organic, will normally show either a uniform blanched white surface or numerous tiny parallel lines. If you hold bone over a stove burner, as it heats up it will begin to smell like chicken bones left on a barbecue grill.

Ivory, regardless of the animal it comes from, normally has some apparent wavy grain like woodgrain that you can find someplace on the surface. If the object includes the entire round tusk, you can see crosshatching just inside the outer "skin". If held over a stove burner, it will give off the same smell as bone as it heats up.

On fake scrimshaw, the "engraving" and artificial scarring are the same shallow depth. A fake whale tooth generally also shows parallel saw marks across the bottom (open end).

Collectors tip from one of our readers--Dr. Jerome C. Ford from


LadyW8tn41 said...

OMG! PLEASE do not hold items thought to be of any value whatsoever over a stove burner! That's a good way to get them cracked and/or otherwise damaged. The industry standard is to use a needle--sewing or pin even a safety pin and heat the point to near red heat then place it against the item in question in an inconspicuous place and with the nose at the ready--sniff the resulting emission. I had saved an email with the info on what the resulting smell would identify the item to be. Some gracious family member must have deleted it for me--so now I have to search the internet to find it again!---That's gonna be fun--it took a while to find it the first time. If anyone out there has the breakdown of the smells to identify the substance an item is composed of please em it to me too???

SiderealGirl said...

I have a much safer suggestion -- get your dentist to take an x-ray of it! Fakes will show no variation at all, while real ivory will show structural elements. Almost 30 years ago I bought a piece at a mall antique show. I called it scrimshaw, but the seller said "Well, I'm not sure what that is, I just know it's a whale's tooth" and wrote that on the receipt. I was uncertain about it -- my then-fiance thought of using the heated-needle trick, and then said "This is stupid - let's just x-ray it!" He was a senior in dental school. Sure enough -- no detail at all. The seller took it back with no hassle, I just told her I had dipped too far into my tuition money to buy it. Three years later I saw an identical model in the gift shop at Fanueil Hall, Boston -- with a copyright symbol and mfr. name in the base.

Debbie White said...

I am wondering if it is so easy to tell why do the sites I find say that it is very hard to tell, and some fakes are mistaken for originals. We have an Ivory Tusk presumably Elephant, that is broken in three peices, and it is still hard to tell the differences. I even read where it is from a fake list, but I can not tell. I would have said it was original had it not been in the fake list. So I know from experience it is not easy to tell.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your kind and helpful notes about identifying bone and ivory. Seems to me that careful use of a stove burner would be far less invasive - and easier to do - than the hot needle piercing method. Again, thanks!