Slavery Scrimshaw work is the holy grail for “Americana” collectors.  Rare even in the USA could a masterpiece of the Art have turned up in sleepy North Yorkshire?

Fake or fortune?
A carved slavery scrimshaw ostrich egg featuring an American eagle

A rare Antebellum slavery scrimshaw egg in North Yorkshire?!

Back in Blighty, I haunt Auction Houses for items of Americana.  Being a mercantile empire that held dominion over a third of the world’s surface these items turn up in Britain far more often than you would expect.  But sometimes they are just too good to be true.  This rare antebellum  “slavery” scrimshaw egg proved to be a case in point.

Scrimshaw work really originated with the British sailor in the early 18th century.  Using a “scrim” needle the sailors would carve on whale teeth or smaller pieces of marine ivory as a means of relieving boredom and supplementing their modest income.  This kind of work is avidly collected and extremely expensive.  During the 19th century, other forms of scrimshaw work also became popular.  Not just marine ivory but elephant tusk, emu and ostrich eggs.  They were worked by both indigenous peoples and port bound sailors.  Ostrich eggs were particularly popular with British sailors returning from South Africa, where the bird was to be found in abundance.  These eggs were also known to be worked by American sailors, but they are much rarer.  Even rarer still are scrimshaw works that feature slave scenes from the Antebellum South.  Yet incredibly here I was, staring one in the face in rural Yorkshire!

If this was genuine it would be a museum piece.  Worth tens of thousands of dollars.  Yet the Auction house had only estimated it to fetch around $100.  This immediately aroused my suspicion. Secondly, they did not date it. It was simply catalogued as ” a scrimshaw ostrich egg with a slavery scene and an American eagle”.  I examined it carefully and decided it was a fake and reluctantly let go of my dreams.

Why a fake?

Firstly it was a genuine ostrich egg.  But these eggs are not rare, indeed they are commercially farmed and are famously tough and hardy.  Along with the cockroach, they would probably be the only things to survive a nuclear Armageddon!  With a surface more like cement than a chickens egg, they are a pliable hardy canvas.  They are easily worked and with practice, the correct tools and the right technique they can be made to look naive in a convincing Victorian style.

But though the egg was genuine, the scrimshaw work was just too good to be true.  Not just a slavery scene but also an American eagle.  The holy grail for all American collectors.  I longed for it to be genuine, but I was not convinced.  Looking at it I asked myself two simple questions.  Who would carve it and for what purpose?  The vast majority of these eggs were carved by sailors.  They carved what they knew.  Ships or creatures of the sea.  The idea of carving a slavery scene would have been completely alien to them.  Why? For what purpose?  No slaveholder would want to commemorate such a scene and the slaves themselves certainly wouldn’t have had either the time, tools or inclination for such an indulgence.  In 1855 this piece would have been an anachronism and would have held no commercial value.  

Did I miss a saleroom “sleeper”?

No, it just didn’t ring true. The egg had some discolour to it but this seemed applied in a uniform way aimed at deliberately ageing the “whiteness” of the egg.   It was just too artificial a discolouration.  It didn’t look like one hundred and fifty years worth of handling, tobacco and sunlight.  I figured it was probably tea leaf extract coated with several layers to give the shell a patina of age cynically aimed at fooling the unwary.  The final giveaway for me though was not the egg itself, but the machine turned stand it was fixed to.  Though such stands were available in the mid-nineteenth century this was far too sharp to be of that period, dating in my view to the mid 20th century.

Fake of fortune?
The real thing. A scrimshaw ostrich egg featuring a dragoon officer and the Uruguayan flag

But if I thought it was a fake then at least two collectors disagreed with me.  On the day the piece was bid up to almost $1000.  A massive increase on the estimate but still a bargain if a genuine work.  I want to believe the new owner got a fabulous cut-price antique but sadly something tells me this piece was carved in the last fifty years in South Africa for the unwary American tourist.

Read about more of my fake or fortune “Americana” buys here.

fake or fortune
Confederate $100 “shin-plaster”

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