Carved Ivory from Sam'al

Carved Ivory from Sam'al

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BLOG: A History of ivory carving by John Culme

Class 28 at the Great Exhibition of 1851 was the section devoted to 'Manufactures from Animal and Vegetable Substances, not being Woven or Felted.' The contributions in this area from the United Kingdom alone included variety of items: D. Hay Jones's 'Welsh rustic picture-frame, made of the natural excrescences of the apple-tree' J. King's 'Baskets and chandelier, manufactured of coloured straw' H.P. Truefitt & Sons' 'Carved ivory brushes and comb. Tortoiseshell combs, Head-dresses of natural hair' Lockington Bunn & Co.'s 'Specimens of the various descriptions of native Para India-rubber, or caoutchue, and of gutta percha, with samples illustrative of the various stages of manufacture' J. & J. Stevenson's 'Ladies' ornamental, dress, and other combs, manufactured from ox and buffalo horns' J.H. Bass's 'Corks cut by machinery,' &c., &c.

After the closure of the Exhibition many of these items were presented to Her Majesty's Government, the objects derived from animal products eventually finding their way to the new museum at South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) to form the nucleus of a permanent 'Trade Collection.' The foreword to the first catalogue of this collection, published in 1860, explained that, 'Hitherto there has been no special collection in [the United Kingdom] of Animal Products arranged commercially, and explaining popularly and connectedly their useful applications through the several stages and processes of conversion and manufacture.' The collection was divided into five categories: animal substances used (I) in textile and clothing manufacturing (II) for domestic and ornamental purposes (III) for pigments and dyes (IV) in pharmacy and perfumery and (V) the application of waste matter, such as albumen (egg white) in the making of photographic prints and guano for manure.

The general public, it was felt, was either ignorant of or willing to ignore the importance of the use of animal products in so many branches of industry. The museum's Catalogue of the Collection of Commercial Products of the Animal Kingdom gave an exhaustive account, from the benign use of wool for broad and narrow cloths, carpets tartans, &c., and a specimen of silk from worms bred in England in 1789 by the Rev. Swain for which he was awarded a medal from the Laudable Society, to the malign. The latter included fur, feathers, down and quills as well as every type of ivory: elephant, hippopotamus, narwhal, &c. To the Victorian reader such details, including tallies of the prodigious quantities of these products consumed, probably came as nothing more than facts of passing interest.

Peter Lund Simmons (1814-1897), the compiler of the Catalogue , however, seems to have shared our 21 st century sense of shock and distaste: 'Those who use articles of ivory, such as fans and chessmen, are little aware of how this material is procured, the quantities of it which are annually used, and the number of noble animals which are yearly slain for the purpose of supplying the constantly-increasingly demand.' He even mentioned the highly questionable records of big game hunters like Major Thomas William Rogers of the Ceylon Regiment (killed by lightening in 1845) who shot 1,000 elephants in Sri Lanka with his own rifle and of Roualeyn George Gordon-Cumming (1820-1866) who destroyed a similar number in Africa.

Hippopotamus and narwhal ivory was ideal for the making artificial teeth while 'Elephant ivory is the most esteemed, the African varieties being preferred to the East Indian [and] wild elephants yield better ivory than those which are domesticated.' In the late 1850s the import of ivory into the United Kingdom was some 468 tons per annum, the wholesale value of which was about £600 per ton and £1,100 for the best quality. This amounted to £52,416 annually. 'According to this calculation,' the Catalogue stated, '26,208 elephants have been slaughtered yearly to supply the demands of commerce.' The greatest consumption by far (200 tons every year) was in connexion with the Sheffield and Birmingham cutlery trades, for use as handles. It comes as little consolation that, 'Every part of the ivory, owing to the costliness of the material, is turned to some account even the dust collected from the ivory turners is a most valuable gelatin, and is used for jellies, by straw-hat makers, and for other purposes.'

Although, in L.P. Hartley's often quoted phrase, 'The past is a foreign country,' we can hardly congratulate ourselves for living in more enlightened times according to Tanya Steele , present head of the United Kingdom office of The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), more than 20,000 African elephants are still being killed every year for their ivory, 'their tusks turned into carvings and trinkets.'

This lust for 'carvings and trinkets' of ivory stretches back to antiquity and examples of such work survives from every age. Among the most intriguing are the lathe-turned ornamental standing cups and miniature towers of ivory which were made during the 16 th and 17 th centuries, frequently by wealthy amateurs. Created for their own amusement and the delight of their friends, these 'objects of wonder' are breathtaking as much for their delicacy as for the invention of their designs. Rarest and most extraordinary of all are the asymmetrical examples where the cup seems to lean and sway as if seen through water or reflected in a distorting mirror. A notable exponent of ivory turning and carving of this period was Marcus Heiden (active 1618-1664) who worked in Coburg for Duke Johann Casimir (1564-1633). His table centrepiece of 1638/39 , rising from the model of an elephant to an elaborate 'finial' in the form of a galleon in full sail, is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Nearer our own time, Horace Walpole (1717-1797), the antiquarian and connoisseur who lived at Strawberry Hill , his 'Gothic mousetrap' villa near Twickenham, owned a 'turning lathe' and tools. In the 19 th century there appear to have been many talented amateurs in England, adept in turning ivory and wood on the lathe. In 1886 a Major Barry exhibited various turned ivory ornaments at the Ryde Amateur Art Society on the Isle of Wight. General George Calvert Clarke (1814-1900), a Crimean War veteran, was another military gentleman who won praise for his 'splendid specimens of high-glass turning in ivory,' which he exhibited at a meeting of the Amateur Mechanical Society in London in 1886.

Several clergymen indulged their passion for this type of lathe work. The Rev. Robert Coningham who lived at Rose Hill, Abbots Langley was one. Following his death in 1836, his widow, the writer Louisa Capper , put the contents of his workshop up for sale:

'To Amateur Turners, Ivory and General Turners, Cabinet-makers, and Others.

'TOPLIS and SON will Sell by Auction, at their Rooms, No. 16, St. Paul's Church-yard, THIS DAY, Aug. 23, at Twelve, by order of the Executrix, LATHES and TOOLS, all of Messrs. Holtzapffel's make, removed from Rose-Hill, Abbots Langley, far [sic] the convenience of sale, comprising a screw mandril lathe of the most complete and costly description, with eccentric and other chucks, a six-inch centre lathe, with oval chuck, vertical, and horizontal grinding machines, strong vice, about 3000 tools for turning, cabinet-making and carpentering, two benches, too chest, small quantity of ivory and hardwood, &c., &c. May be viewed this day and Catalogues had at the Rooms.'

( Morning Advertiser , London, Monday, 22 August 1836, p. 4d)

The Rev. John Henry Holdich (1811-1893), sometime of Bulwick Rectory at Wansford, Northamptonshire, the possessor of a private income, was another who passed some of his leisure hours in ivory and wood turning and carving in wood. The photograph of ten examples of his lathe work, mostly in ivory, some with hardwood details and one delicate cup formed from an egg shell, is illustrated here. The centrepiece, a tower rising from a number of columns to a slender pinnacle, was 10 ½ in. (26.5cm.) high. In a letter to the editor of the periodical, The English Mechanic and Mirror of Science , published in London on 26 June 1868 (p. 296, with engraving based on the photograph on p. 302), Holdich described this piece as a 'Temple or Pagoda, of ivory, except the cap and base, which are of ebony. I believe there are about 136 in this (I have no spiral apparatus). The spirals are done with the overhead motion and drill.'

The Rev. Holdich and his fellow amateurs may have been privileged with money and time on their hands but their skill and delight in lathe work was shared by a number of men in much less fortunate circumstances. On display at The North London Working Classes' Industrial Exhibition held at the Agricultural Hall, Islington in 1864, for instance, was a collection of similar items. They were all the more remarkable, as The Times of London (8 November 1864, p. 9c) put it, because 'in nearly every case [they were] the production of the workmen's leisure hours. . . . Those paintings and drawings by labourers, letter-carriers, and porters those models in wood, and ivory turnings, and ironwork by clerks who have gone through their eight or ten hours' work in a close office the visible and successful struggle after self-improvement which all those works suggested, the labour and self-denial each costs to produce, made this North London Exhibition one of the most striking social features of the day. . . .'

At this 1864 exhibition W. Brown, an ivory turner in Blackfriars, showed 'Six Ivory Balls, one within the other, with a cube in the centre, all turned out of one solid piece.' Two other London ivory turners, W. Martin and G. Marshall, chose to exhibit similar work made from vegetable ivory (palm nuts), a relatively inexpensive ivory substitute imported from South America.

While Brown, Martin and Marshall were probably working ivory turners and carvers to the trade,

Victorian Londoners and visitors to the metropolis in search of fancy ivory work would sooner or later have been directed to one of the luxury goods shops in the City and West End. William Lund & Son of Cornhill in the City, established in 1796, was just one of many such retail establishments. Ostensibly purveyors of dressing cases and fine cutlery, Lund's was also known for its stock of turned ivory goods, including toilet implements, talcum powder boxes and needle cases. But a firm specialising in the actual making as well as selling turned ivory goods to the public was that of Martin Fentum (1826-1891).

The name Fentum would have been well known to music lovers in late 18 th and 19 th century London because the family had been engaged as music and opera ticket sellers in the Strand since the 1760s. The founder, Jonathan Fentum (d. 1783), a flautist, was Martin's great-grandfather. There are many surviving flutes and other turned woodwind instruments which were sold by the Fentum family business, some of which are mounted with ivory . It is probably no coincidence that Martin Fentum was apprenticed to a turner.

By 1851, when he was only 25, young Fentum had opened his own business at 8 Hemming's Row, near Leicester Square the Census for that year describes him as a 'Master Ivory Turner employing 1 man & 4 apprentices.' He even managed to submit 'Improved ivory chessmen and board' to the 1851 Great Exhibition (class 28, no. 48).

Between then and 1862, Fentum expanded his business by opening additional premises at 85 New Bond Street. His showing at the 1862 International Exhibition in London was 'Works in ivory and hard woods' (class IV, no. 979) and 'Lathe and saw for working in ivory' (class VII, sub-class B, no. 1595). His set up comprised a small workshop with demonstrations at the lathe as well as examples of his productions, for which he was awarded a Prize Medal (see photograph).

In fact, the Western Annex of this exhibition was full of 'machinery in motion.' 'There are traction engines and washing and mangling machines. Among the processes of manufactures shown are needle making, medal striking, gold-chain making, type casting, type printing by hand, lithographic printing, copper-plate printing, a potter's wheel, brick and drain-tile making, and wood carving.' ( The Morning Post , London, Friday, 2 May 1862, p. 5d) By all accounts the public was fascinated to see for themselves this busy hive of industry, the plant and gadgets which drove mass-production and modern workmanship.

Meanwhile, the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851 as it had stood in Hyde Park had been dismantled, redesigned and reassembled on an estate at Sydenham, south London. The new building, with an assembly of 40,000 guests, was opened by Queen Victoria on 10 June 1854. The interior was furnished with grand courts filled with statuary and tableaux illustrative of the art of various eras, including Egyptian (destroyed by fire in 1866), Roman, Renaissance, &c. Visitors flocked to the vast new building for flower shows, daring performances by Charles Blondin (1824-1897) the tight-rope walker and many other events, including the annual Handel Festival which in which The Messiah was given with never less that 3,500 performers.

A new feature was installed in the new Crystal Palace in 1863 in the form of an industrial section. 'If the machinery in the basement is less notable than the machinery was in the western annexe [of the 1862 exhibition],' wrote a correspondent to The Standard (London, Thursday, 28 May 1863, p. 3c), 'it is still uncommonly interesting, and housewives looking at it may learn from the machines of Messrs. Clark, of Leicester, how the thread with which they are accustomed to work is made and reeled, and how the exquisite ivory knick-nacks which now ornament so many drawing-rooms are produced by Mr. Fentum of New Bond-street, partly by delicate and beautiful machinery, and partly by skilled hand labour. . . .'

While Fentum's lathes and ivory turning manufactory remained a feature at the Crystal Palace until the early years of the 20 th century, the business had been forced to relinquish its original Hemming's Row premises because it stood in the way of the construction of the new Charing Cross Road, which was opened by the Duke of Cambridge on 26 February 1887. A year before Martin Fentum held a sale, the details of which make interesting reading, giving some idea of his stock-in-trade:

'Ancient and Modern Ivory Carvings, Altar Pieces with Ivory Figures, Ivory Model of Westminster Column, 40 Crucifixes, 40 Carved Ivory Figures, Caskets, &c. Carved Chessmen, 800 Ivory Brushes, 300 Mirrors, Gentlemen's and Ladies' Silver-fitted Travelling Bags, 100 Sets Billiard and Pool Balls, and the whole of the large stock of Ivory Articles of Mr. Fentum.

'CHADWICK and SONS will SELL by AUCTION (in consequence of the premises being taken by Metropolitan Board of Works), on the Premises, 8 Hemming's-row, St. Martin's-lane, Charing-cross, on MONDAY next and following days, at 12, the whole of the Valuable Collection of Antique and Modern IVORY CARVINGS, collected by Mr. Fentum during the last 40 years of his extensive stock of Ivory articles. - On view, Catalogues at the Auctioneers' Offices, 35, St. Martin's-lane, W.C.' ( Daily News , London, Wednesday, 17 February 1886, p. 8a)

Martin Fentum died at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, City of London, in August 1891, the victim of an accident when he was thrown from his dog-cart in nearby Princess Street around the corner from Cornhill where William Lund & Son were still in business. Fentum's son, Charles (1864-1894) and the latter's wife, Sarah Alice (née Pond, 1865-1944) succeeded. A visitor to their new central London showroom at Prince's Buildings, Coventry Street, Leicester Square in 1893 remarked: 'Mr. Fentum's charming morceaux are held by persons of taste and culture. He numbers among his patrons some of the most distinguished people in the land. Her Majesty the Queen and several of the Royal Family have patronised his establishment on several occasions. . . . The stocks held at Coventry Street embrace desirable specimens of the proprietor's taste and skill in the shape of delicate statuettes, elaborately and elegantly finished toilet ornaments, costly articles of luxury, lovely knick-nacks and almost everything conceivable for ornament and use that skill and ingenuity can carved out of ivory.' ( Illustrated London and Its Representatives of Commerce: Progress, Commerce , London, 1893, p. 190)

Today, we prize these 'lovely knick-nacks' with a mixture of appreciation and distaste the former as examples of fine craftsmanship, the latter because of the cruel sacrifice made by so many majestic creatures for the sake of their tusks. Current legislation aims to curb if not entirely eliminate the commerce in ivory and the slaughter of elephants and other endangered species. Indeed, nobody in their right mind wishes to encourage such a loathsome trade, let alone flout the new rules governing the sale and exchange of ivory goods. That said, the sometimes extraordinary and beautiful work of generations of ivory carvers and turners is still to be seen, admired and cherished in most of our museums, from a mid 19th century Japanese Shibayama button in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, to an early 18 th century French gold-inlaid carved ivory snuff box in the British Museum and the ivory model of a pavilion made by Nathaniel Brown Engleheart (1790-1869) in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A group of objects made by the Rev. John Henry Holdich, including 'an ivory vase, with flowers on hard wood pedestal, a specimen of the power of the elliptic chuck a temple or pagoda of ivory, with the exception of the cap and base, which are of ebony – there are about 136 pieces in this a very delicate ivory vase with flowers, on hard wood pedestal a cup, the body and cover of which are made of an ordinary egg shell a transparent cup and cover, so thin that a piece of paper with the date on it, gummed inside, is clearly read through ivory balls, containing cubes, spikes, or cones, and other articles.' (photo: probably the Rev. J.H. Holdich, 1868 The English Mechanic and Mirror of Science and Art , London, Friday, 19 June 1868, p. 266b)

Martin Fentum's exhibit at the International Exhibition of 1862, including (centre) a replica in turned and carved ivory of the then recently erected 'Westminster Column' ( Westminster Scholars War Memorial ). (photo: The London Stereoscopic & Photographic Co., Ltd., London, 1862).

Ivory: Genuine, Fake, and Confusing

Historically, genuine ivory has been difficult to obtain, highly sought after and, consequently, an expensive luxury item. In some ways ivory is very similar to precious metals and gemstones. But while gold and silver have carried purity marks and have been closely regulated by governments for centuries, ivory has never been subjected to similar trade laws regarding genuineness or quality. It has never been illegal to sell imitations of ivory. As a result, there are a tremendous number of ivory look-alike objects in the market today. These include present day fakes to 19th century ivory substitutes like celluloid.

Ivory imitations and fakes have dramatically increased since the mid-1970s. This is largely due to laws, beginning with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which limit commercial ivory trading to protect threatened species like whales and elephants. As additional laws continued to tighten the sale of natural ivory, more and more ivory fakes and substitutes appeared. Most mass produced new ivory look-alike products are honestly sold as imitations at low prices. But some of those pieces, as well as deliberately confusing intentional fakes of old ivory, frequently appear in the antiques market. This article will look at the basic ways to separate genuine ivory from present day simulated ivory as well as older look-alike ivory.

What is Ivory?

Many people associate the word "ivory" with only elephant tusks but this is not accurate. Ivory comes from teeth as well as tusks of a number of mammals. Tusks are simply large teeth that extend outside the mouth. Elephant tusks, for example, are upper incisors walrus tusks are upper canines. Tusks and teeth are formed of the same four parts: enamel, cementum, dentine and pulp cavity. These parts are shown in an elephant tusk above but are included in all other forms of ivory regardless of animal species.

The mammals which provide ivory are: 1) elephants (order Proboscidea) which include species alive today (extant) as well as prehistoric elephants now died out (extinct) like mammoths 2) walrus 3) whales--sperm, killer and narwhal 4) hippopotamus and 5) warthog. These groups represent the main sources of commercial ivory used over the years. Small sized pieces of noncommercial ivory have also been obtained from other species such as tusks from most species of wild and domestic pigs and boars and from the teeth of beaver, elk, camel and bears.

Recognizing Genuine Ivory

Many people rely on the hot needle test for ivory. When touched with a hot needle, genuine ivory chars and turns black a hot needle will cause artificial material to melt or burn. In our view this test is bad for two reasons: first, it's destructive to the piece tested, second, it doesn't tell you the type of ivory you're looking at. Knowing the kind of ivory you're dealing with is now extremely important due to the laws banning the sales of whale ivories.

In their book Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes, the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory recommends a three step approach to the identification of ivory and ivory imitations. 1) examination with long wave black light 2) examination of physical features/shapes 3) look for Schreger angles (crosshatch grain characteristic of elephant ivory). The step-by-step chart on page 42 will guide you through an easy yes or no process of elimination.

Black Light

Using black light is an important first step because it saves time by ruling out artificial materials. Virtually all plastics and resins fluoresce blue or blue/white under long wave black light regardless of the surface color in ordinary light. Genuine ivory usually fluoresces white but this can vary depending on whether the ivory has a patina. Most natural old patinas fluoresce dull yellow or brown. Be very suspicious of any brightly colored fluorescence such as yellow as this indicates artificial aging in dung, urine or animal fats. Use black light as your first test, not your only test. Black light is useful for eliminating artificial materials but can not alone prove a piece is ivory. Bone, vegetable ivory (cellulose) and glued together ivory dust, for example, all react like genuine ivory under black light.

Physical Features and Structure

Ivory is formed by living growing tissue. The direction and forms of growth are unique to each ivory producing species (see illustrations page 41). These unique grain structures have so far been impossible to duplicate in artificial substances like plastics and resins. Generally, grain always runs along the long dimension of a piece of authentic worked ivory.

Attempts to put grain in artificial ivory go back over 100 years. Celluloid, one of the earliest plastics invented in 1868, has a prominent grain. Grain in celluloid and other artificial ivory is usually easy to detect because it normally appears as nearly perfectly parallel lines and shows a definite repeating pattern. Grain in natural ivory is random without any noticeable pattern. A repeating pattern with uniform even lines is almost always a sign of a man-made artificial ivory.

The presence of grain also allows us to eliminate other natural non-ivory materials such as bone and glued together ivory dust. But like the black light test, grain alone does not guarantee a piece is ivory. You must use several tests before you can make an accurate judgement.

Schreger Lines (Angles)

The key feature to identifying elephant ivory is a unique pattern of crosshatching that appear in cross sections of elephant tusk. These lines, actually rows of microscopic tubes, are known as Schreger Lines where they cross form Schreger Angles. Schreger Lines have never been duplicated in artificial plastics or resins. The presence of Schreger Lines always qualifies a piece as elephant ivory. The lines are most easily seen in the bases of figures and anywhere cuts are made at right angles to the grain. While the presence of Schreger Lines can be diagnostic, they may not always be obvious and depending on how a piece of ivory was cut they won't always show. It is a myth that a piece made of ivory will always have them, so the absence of Schreger Lines cannot be a reliable indicator of a substance other than ivory.

Schreger Angles are used to establish whether ivory is from present day elephants or extinct elephants such as mammoths. This is an important distinction because the sale of extinct elephant ivory is basically unrestricted while the sale of present day elephant ivory is tightly regulated. Schreger Angles of less than 90° indicate mammoth ivory angles greater than 115° indicate elephant ivory. Use the outer Schreger Angles (closest to the outside edge) only for this test. Do not use Schreger Angles in the center of the tusk. Measure at least five angles to get a true average.

Exceptions and Special Cases

Ivory nuts, which are the hard cellulose kernels from Tagua palms, are frequently confused with genuine ivory. They fluoresce like genuine ivory under black light and show a fine grain under magnification. Although they can grow to the size of a small apple, the majority of ivory nuts are under 2" which makes them unsuitable for large carvings. The most common use of ivory nuts is for new netsuke. The definitive test is to apply a small drop of sulfuric acid. This will form a pink stain on ivory nuts in 10-12 minutes but will not stain genuine ivory. However, use this test as a last resort the stain is permanent and not removable.

Don't be misled by surface color in ordinary light. Patina, regardless of color, does not prove either age or whether a piece is genuine ivory. Natural original patinas on genuine ivory can fade completely away in bright sunlight. The surface can fade so much that Schreger Lines and grain become almost invisible.

Large pieces of old ivory commonly form cracks over the years. Some persons incorrectly use cracks as a sign of age or proof that a piece is ivory. This is misleading. Many new pieces of molded artificial ivory have "cracks" and other imperfections deliberately included in the casting.


The critical point to keep in mind is the need for multiple tests. No one test provides an accurate basis for judgement. Under normal circumstances, genuine ivory (with no or little patina) should appear white under long wave black light and genuine ivory always has grain. Elephant ivory always has Schreger Lines, a cross hatch pattern, when seen in cross section. Translucence is an ivory characteristic that can be helpful in differentiating it from bone, as bone is an opaque substance.

Anyone dealing in ivory needs to know the laws regulating its sale, display and transportation. The primary federal laws governing ivory are: The Endangered Species Act, Lacey Act, Convention On International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and African Elephant Conservation Act. Copies should be available at larger public libraries and most U.S. Fish and Wildlife offices.

Cox, W. Chinese Ivory Sculpture. 1946. Crown. NY, NY.

Espinoza/Mann. Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes. 1992. available from World Wildlife Find, PO Box 4866, Hampden Post Office, Baltimore MD 21211. credit card orders (410) 516-6951

Harris, G. Fascination of Ivory. 1991. Americas Group, Los Angles, CA.

Penniman, T. Pictures of Ivory and Other Animal Teeth. 1984. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

Reikichi, U. Netsuke Handbook. 1988. Tuttle. Tokyo, Japan

Shell, H. Is it ivory?. 1983. Ahio Publishing, Tulsa, OK.

Fig. 1 18" figure of new cow bones

Fig. 2 19th century celluloid finger nail buffer

Fig. 3 New plastic tusk

Fig. 4 Repro powder flask with molded resin inserts.

Fig. 5 Tusks are only large teeth. All geunuine ivories are made dentine found in the teeth of all mammals.

Fig. 6 Main sources of commerical ivory over the years.

Editors Note: Other than a basic description, this article will not cover whale scrimshaw (carvings on whale teeth). Genuine antique scrimshaw is highly regulated by federal and state governments and legally sold by permit only.

Warning Signs of Fakes and Look-alike Ivory

Jagged edged pits and broken bubbles are typical in the surface of synthetic ivory substitutes. These materials are usually some type of resin/plastic and are almost always molded. Trapped air and expanding gas from impurities virtually always cause rounded smooth-backed holes in the finished surface. No similar type pits or holes are found in genuine ivories.

No grain or the presence of a repeating grain pattern are two characteristics of artificial ivory. Plastics and resins have no grain. Nineteenth century cellulose was created specifically to imitate genuine ivory and usually has some type of grain. Look at it closely at you'll see grain lines of regular even thickness repeat in a regular pattern. Grain lines in real ivory are random.

Mammoth or elephant ivory? Place the base or cross section of test piece on a photocopier (or scanner) to get a hard copy image of the Schreger lines on paper. Now use a straight edge to mark and extend lines of intersecting angles(Fig. 17). Then measure angles with a protractor (Fig. 18). If the angle of intersection is less than 90°, it is mammoth ivory more than 115°, elephant ivory. Make your measurements on the outer-most angles and use an average of five angles minimum to insure accurate testing.

Fig. 7 Pits in surface of synthetic ivory about twice actual size.

Fig. 8 Broken bubbles in surface of synthetic ivory. Actual size.

Fig. 9 Surface of synthetic ivory. No trace of grain.

Fig. 10 Regularly repeated artificial grain in celluloid.

Fig. 11 -- Mold seams and casting lines Many, but not all, cast resins and plastics show seams. They are often concealed in the pattern as in the piece shown above. Note tool marks at left.

Fig. 12 -- Discolored pits, parallel grooves All bone, even when polished, shows regular pits and irregular grooves under 10X magnification. Discoloration around pits is common.

Fig. 13 -- Blue fluoresence. Virtually all plastic and resin artificial ivories fluoresce blue or blue/white under black light.

Fig. 14 -- Be suspicious of rough or obvious tool marks. The deep grooves on this piece appear on the bottom of a supposedly carved tusk. It is a piece of cast resin.

Fig. 15 -- Joints and seams. Virtually all old ivory carvings are made of single pieces of solid ivory. Cow bones are now being glued together to create large figures. This photo shows the meeting of four separate pieces typical of the cow bone figures. This is how the statue in Fig. 1, is made.

Fig. 16 The bases of most larger genuine ivory figures carved from elephant or walrus tusks are oval because that is the natural cross section of the tusk. Bases of many, but not all, artificial ivories are very nearly perfectly round. This is not a conclusive test but is often one more clue in separating new from old.

The Elusive Past of Ivory Anatomical Models

Welcome back to the Dittrick Museum Blog!

Today, we are pleased to host guest-blogger Cali Buckley, Ph.D. Candidate in Art History, Pennsylvania State University. Cali has been doing some fascinating research on ivory anatomical models, three of which reside in the Dittrick Collection. Delicate, finely carved, and impossibly detailed, these ivory anatomical models are both fascinating and mysterious. Today, Cali will be talking to us about their curious and often uncertain past. We hope you will join us at the Dittrick Museum’s history of birth exhibit, and take a closer look for yourself!

The Elusive Past of Ivory Anatomical Models

Cali Buckley, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Art History, Penn State University
[all images reproduced by permission of Dittrick Medical History Center, Case Western Reserve University]

The Dittrick Museum is ready to show some of the most curious and least understood objects in the history of medicine: ivory anatomical manikins. They are hand-carved and highly intricate but rarely longer than a man’s hand. Nonetheless, when the top of the body is opened, they reveal a number of minuscule ivory organs. A majority of these models have articulated arms and—for the large percentage which are female—a tiny fetus attached to his mother by a red umbilical string. There are a little over 100 of these manikins known today in collections spanning Europe and the United States, but the question remains: What were they used for?

What we do know is that most of them were probably produced in Germany and owned by male physicians. The first manikins were pioneered by the ivory carver Stephan Zick (1639–1715) of Nuremberg, who also made ivory models of the eyes and ears.[1] Often the models passed from one doctor’s hands to another’s, such as those at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.[2] Ignaz Semmelweis—who nearly eradicated puerperal fever in new mothers of the mid-nineteenth century by insisting that male ‘midwives’ wash their hands—also had a manikin, now in a museum in Budapest named for him.[3] By the 1930s the market was saturated such objects to the point that the buyers for the Wellcome Collection would not acquire any single pieces above ten pounds sterling.[4] Unfortunately, many of the sellers of these objects were killed in concentration camps, and their collections dispersed during World War II.

There are at least a few bits of text that can give us more insight into how these manikins were used. In 2007 a manikin owned by the famous French obstetrician Francois Mauriceau (1637–1709) was sold by Christie’s auction house. It bore a curious inscription transcribed by the sellers as “Bon den ßufallen ß krantheiten der Sibivangern ßeiber ud kindbetterinnen.”[5] A rendering of it into modern German might read as “von den zufallen der krankheiten der schwangeren Weiber und Kindbetterinnen” or “for the diseases befalling pregnant women and those who have just given birth.”[6].

These ivory models were once thought to have been used as tools for doctors to explain childbirth to expectant mothers, but given the evidence we do have, this scenario is unlikely.[7] The Wellcome Collection acquired a poem with one of its manikins. It was signed by the Italian obstetrician Juseph Fuardi de Fossau in 1786. The original French has been translated as:

Fuardi points to medical students as the manikins’ primary audience while advertising and vindicating the trained physician’s role in the birthing process. He also echoes the sentiments put forth by doctors when they first began to offer their own insights into women’s medicine starting with Eucharius Rösslin in sixteenth-century Germany.

The manikins themselves can hardly be considered pragmatic given that their pieces seem to be caricatures of actual body parts and they are so small that they can barely convey any information. They were after the printed “flap anatomies” made for wide audiences to see inside the body and the much more accurate wax Venuses of Florence and Vienna. As ivories, these manikins catered to trained medics who collected ivory instruments of various sorts from models to instruments such as enema syringes and scalpel or saw handles. The material was also a signifier of wealth. Though these tiny women were not highly functional in a physical sense, they were part of a wunderkammer mentality whereby objects become symbols of the curiosities of the universe—in addition to acting as a display and preservation of affluence.

Though it is nearly impossible at this time to attribute specific manikins to their makers, they do fall into stylistic groups. The manikin on a red velveteen bed may be related to other models in the Istituto Ortopedico Rizzoli in Bologna,[9] the Victoria and Albert Museum in London,[10] and five examples owned by the Wellcome Collection in London. Another is very similar to another in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig,[11] one in the Olbricht Collection, Essen,[12] and two in the Wellcome Collection. The supine woman on the faded and elevated platform is unique. There are a number of manikins that seem to be one-offs, and they likely originated from an artisan attempting to copy the format, but it is also possible that a great number of other ivory figurines were lost or destroyed due to breakage, lost parts, and their unfortunate labeling as ‘novelties’.

These manikins may not be scientifically useful, but their making was such that they performed as pieces to distinguish the male doctor as someone who was focusing on women’s medicine and was willing to purchase or commission an object dedicated to his work. Having been made in Germany at a time when men were still attempting to prove their usefulness in terms of childbirth and the education of midwives, such objects take on a new light, offering a means for male doctors to convey what they did know about the female body. Whether lying silently in their private vitrines and cases or being ‘performed upon’ by a doctor for the eyes of curious students, these ivory ladies were instruments of a different kind.

[1] Eugene von Philippovich, Elfenbein (Munich: Klinkhardt und Biermann, 1981), 331.

[2] Information from Marjorie Trusted, The Victoria and Albert Museum. The Huntington’s manikin was owned by a Dr. Edward Bodman. I thank Dan Lewis at the Huntington Library for this information.

[3] Ákos Palla, István Örkény, Miklós Pap, László Székely, Lajos Vörösházy, ed., Nymphis Medicis (Budapest: Kossuth Press, 1962), cat. 62.

[4] This information was gleaned from the correspondence at the archives of the Wellcome Collection, London.

[5] “An Ivory Anatomical Figure of a Woman,” Sotheby’s website, Lot 62, London, December 5, 2007:

[6] This was sold to an anonymous bidder and the original text is no longer available.

[7] Le Roy Crummer, “Visceral Manikins in Carved Ivory,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 13 (1927): 29.

[8] The original text is now lost. Translated in C. J. S. Thompson, “Anatomical Manikins,” Journal of Anatomy 59.4 (July, 1925): 442–447.

[9] Roberto Margotta, Medicina nei secoli (Milan: Mondadori Editore, 1967), 187.

[10] Information from Marjorie Trusted, The Victoria and Albert Museum.

[12] Hiltrud Westermann-Angerhausen and Andrea von Hülsen-Esch, Zum Sterben schön: Alter, totentanz und sterbekunst von 1500 bis heute (Schnell und Steiner, 2006), 143.

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Researcher talks history and ethics of carved elephant ivory

Jessica Stephenson

KENNESAW, Ga. (Nov 12, 2020)Kennesaw State University’s Office of Research is hosting a one-hour web show every other Friday at 4 p.m. to showcase the varied research being conducted by KSU faculty members. “Research with Relevance” spotlights Kennesaw State researchers in a live interview followed by an interactive question-and-answer session with the virtual audience.

Jessica Stephenson, associate professor of art history in the College of the Arts, will be the guest on the Nov. 13 show, presenting her research on the history and ethics of carved elephant ivory from 19 th century Africa. An art historian raised in South Africa, Stephenson primarily focuses her research on the growing field of modern and contemporary African art. In advance of the upcoming Research with Relevance show, Stephenson answered a few questions about her interest in research and its benefits to students.

How did you first get involved in this field of research?

I’ve always loved to travel and explore and was fortunate to have done a lot of that from a young age. My parents took my brother and me out of school in South Africa (my country of origin) for half a year, and we travelled throughout Europe, the UK and the USA, visiting ancient sites and major art museums. I also started formal art and music lessons at a young age and was pursuing an arts career in high school. Research came naturally to me. I picked college classes that offered me on-the-ground research opportunities. I participated in Stone Age archeological digs, documented ancient rock art sites, and conducted interviews with local artists.

I am currently conducting archival and museum collections research on photographs and carved elephant ivory sculptures from the 19 th century Congo. This project was actually an option for my Ph.D. Art History thesis, but at the time, I opted instead to conduct research with living artists in South Africa. After completing my Ph.D., I returned to the carved ivories topic, which worked well since the material is housed in American and European collections and thus more accessible to me since I now reside within the USA.

What was the defining (or ‘aha”) moment when you realized this is what you wanted to do?

After I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) in South Africa, I became a curatorial assistant of works on paper at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the primary art museum in that city. This was my first taste working in an art museum, and I fell in love with the dynamic world of museums. In my position, I researched the collections, planned exhibitions, conducted tours with visitors and developed an outreach program. From there, I returned to graduate school to prepare to do research and to teach with the goal of working in art museums. This current project on 19 th century photographs and carved elephant ivory sculptures brings me back into archives and museum storerooms. It’s thrilling to get to pour through old documents and collections and throw light on things from the past.

How are you involving students in your research?

I worked as an art museum curator at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University for a decade, and students were always an integral part of my research and curatorial projects there. I’ve continued that at KSU. Students have collaborated on exhibitions projects, and I currently have a research assistant sponsored through the Office of Research assisting with my carved African ivories project.

What do you hope students learn from you in the classroom?

I teach courses on art made outside the Western canon, and so my focus is to assist students in gaining the tools and perspective needed to read art through historical or cultural lenses that are far different to their own. My approach to studying art history is also not typical for that discipline. I don’t focus on facts and dates. Rather, I emphasize the importance of critical thinking and visual literacy – skills important to art history, but transferable to any discipline and profession.

What is a common misconception about your field?

I think art history is often perceived to be stuffy, dry and elitist. But that is not the case for my field of African art history which is informed by anthropology, a very people-centered discipline. Art historians travel extensively and often get to spend time with artists who are typically far from dull, so it can be a very exciting field to work in. There is also the perception that art history does not lead to a profitable career. Again, not true, as many of our KSU art history majors have landed professional positions in local arts centers and museums. Even without a graduate degree, they are making significant contributions to the local arts ecology.

Chinese ivory snuff bottle

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Ivory Experts

Our company appraises, identifies, authenticates and certifies ivory sculptures and all objects of art or other items that consist mostly of ivory.

In particular, Ivory Experts determines if ivory pieces were made prior to the 1972 ivory ban and issues the documents and pre-ban certificates.

Ivory Experts helps clients with the import and export paperwork for ivory pieces.

Our appraisers and experts speak many languages and work for clients in the entire world.

Ivory Experts has appraisers and representatives in many countries and when needed can arrange for examination of ivory pieces in various locations.

Ivory Experts consists of a group of art historians and appraisers with experience of many years researching famous ivory carvers, authenticating their works, dating ivory pieces and appraising their value.

A crucial question today when considering selling, buying or shipping ivory to another State or Country is when was it carved? The original CITES Elephant Ban was signed on March 3, 1973. On January 18, 1990 the African Elephant was placed on Appendix I which provides the strictest CITES permits regulations. On July 6, 2016, a near-total ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory went into effect in the United States.

Of interest to most private ivory owners is the fact that the sale of African elephant ivory items across state lines (interstate commerce) is prohibited, except for items that qualify as ESA antiques.

We date ivory using all the methods available from radio carbon dating, to art historical styles, to provenance research, to documentary research.

In doing so we abide by the ESA requirements:
"The person claiming the benefit of the ESA exception must prove that the article is not less than 100 years of age. Such proof can be in the form of testing using scientifically approved aging methods by a laboratory or facility accredited to conduct such tests, a qualified appraisal, or another method that documents the age by establishing the provenance of the article."
Courtesy: United States Department of the Interior

Please contact us using click on this link and we will respond promptly. To upload photos please use the form below:

Stretching the Boundaries

"By the 18th century China had a considerable market in items such as figures made for export to Europe, and from the Meiji Period Japan followed. Japanese ivory for the domestic market had traditionally mostly been small objects such as netsuke, for which ivory was used from the 17th century, or little inlays for sword-fittings and the like, but in the later 19th century, using African ivory, pieces became as large as the material would allow, and carved with virtuosic skill. A speciality was round puzzle balls of openwork that contained a series of smaller balls, freely rotating, inside them, a tribute to the patience of Asian craftsmen."

Usually, many of these balls have a decorated stand made of ivory too.

Chinese puzzle ball, with openwork and a series of twelve smaller balls, ivory, 19th century. British Museum. Original photograph from Ged Carroll

"Originally, they (Chinese puzzle balls) were made almost exclusively from ivory, or the tusks of elephants and were the playthings of rich men because of the time and effort involved in making them. . Usually, puzzle balls are symbols of good luck, and are decorated with a variety of feng shui symbols. The outermost layer often features the phoenix and dragon, symbols of yin and yang. The phoenix represents the wife while the dragon is the husband and emperor, and balls decorated with these symbols are thought to bring good luck and happiness to a marriage. In fact, almost all of the symbols most commonly associated with puzzle balls are associated with ensuring a long and happy marriage. Some balls even have different symbols on different layers, though the most common is a highly decorative outer ball and ‘latticed’ balls inside (with geometric patterns of holes)."

"Chinese puzzle balls are ornate decorative items that consist of several concentric spheres, each of which rotates freely, carved from the same piece of material. . These detailed works of art are usually made up of at least 3 to 7 layers, but the world’s largest puzzle ball is actually made of 42 concentric balls all enclosed one within the other. Although the inner balls can be manipulated to align all the holes, Chinese puzzle balls got their name from people who, through the ages, pondered the mystery of making such objects. So how exactly are puzzle balls made? . Chinese masters rotate a solid ball on a lathe and start by drilling holes toward the center of the objects. Then, using special “L”-shaped tools, they begin to separate the innermost balls. . Because it is easier to work with, the exterior shell is the most elaborately carved, usually featuring an intertwined dragon and a phoenix." tells us that the first puzzle balls appeared during the Song Dynasty, around 1000 d.C.

After having shown the Chinese ivory balls, it seems that the puzzle balls became popular in Europe thanks to Chinese products of the later XIXth century. However, puzzle balls existed in Europe in XVI or XVII century. Here an example.

The Art Medium Ivory

As an art medium today, ivory is a hugely controversial topic as it involves the killing of elephants for their ivory tusks. Historically, ivory was an important material for ornamental, decorative, and artistic use as well as for purely functional use. It has been valuable and a popular artistic medium in many parts of the world where it was traded for many centuries. It has been popular since ancient times, particularly to Greek and Roman civilizations, and is still prized today although bans on its trade have been established by many governments throughout the world in order to curb poaching on dwindling elephant populations.

Ivory, while most popularly associated with elephants, has also been derived from such animals as mammoths, walruses, hippos, and narwhals. Ivory forms the teeth and tusks of such animals and occurs as the same material no matter what animal it is taken from. Ivory has been carved and used to make a vast variety of objects. On the purely functional side, the substance was extremely important to ancient peoples as a material that could form an airtight seal. It was also used to make official seals and piano keys.

Artistically speaking, ivory has a rich history as an art medium. Historians believe that ivory was so popular in times of antiquity that certain elephant species found in the Middle East and Northern Africa were driven to extinction. Ivory was an important commodity of the ancient Silk Road being particularly valued by the Chinese. In Asia ivory was used to make small items like opium pipes and large items like ornately carved screens. Carved ivory statues were also popular items traded on the Silk Road. In Europe ivory was used to carve small statues of saints.

Many cultures prize ivory jewelry. Ivory can be carved into small beads or remain as a larger carved cabochon. Because ivory is a luxury item, it has been viewed as a material denoting status. Ivory also may serve as the handle piece of weapons like daggers. Additionally, ivory has been used artistically in furniture inlay. Many historical art pieces such as carved ivory panels exist as artistic treasures.

Today, even where ivory trade is not banned, it is greatly restricted and monitored. The drop in elephant populations led to this ban in the 1980s, but poachers have continued to diminish many threatened populations. Organizations like the United Nations took the lead in placing bans on ivory trade and many governments have supported their mandates regarding ivory. Many ivory items have been replaced by plastics or other materials. Given the ups and downs of these bans, it is likely that ivory will continue to be closely monitored for years to come.

Watch the video: Family at play carved in solid and genuine mammoth tusk ivory (August 2022).