North Atlantic or Arctic, 1851 CE. A scrimshaw on the tooth of a sperm whale. The icy scene shows two whaling ships off the shore of a landscape with dark cliffs and towering, jagged mountains; an iceberg floats in the water near the closest ship. The other side of the tooth has a series of closely-spaced, tiny holes drilled into it, perhaps as a gaming surface for something like cribbage. Incised with "1851" very faintly on the bottom of the tooth. Comes with custom stand. Size: 1.5" L x 2.2" W x 6.3" H (3.8 cm x 5.6 cm x 16 cm); height on stand: 6.7" (17 cm).
Imagine the landscape and conditions that inspired it - perhaps Greenland, with nunataks rising above the tall walls of the ice sheet such as those at Cape York, or Iceland, with sharp volcanic forms and sea cliffs like those on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The harsh conditions that whalers faced in Arctic climes are beautifully - and forbiddingly - evoked by this piece of art.
Although now it has largely (and happily) fallen out of favor, during the 19th century, whaling was a major part of the world economy. From 1840 to 1861, American crews developed the sperm whale fishing industry to harvest spermaceti, the waxy substance in the nose of the whale that was used to make candles, oil for lamps, and other lubricants. This industry was immortalized in "Moby Dick," published first as "The Whale" in 1851. During those years, the United States had over 700 whaling vessels; whalers would go out on four-year-long voyages and while at sea used their spare time to make wonderful scrimshaw items like this one from whale bone and teeth.
Provenance: Ex-Private California collection acquired before 1970
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