Antique Scrimshaw Whale Teeth

Do you think you have one of these? It’s difficult to tell if you have a real or fake one so today I want to lay out some guidelines for helping you decide if yours is real or fake. I know it’s a little off topic compared to my usual posts but collecting scrimshaw is a hobby of mine. I love all things teeth!

The most common materials used to mimic scimshaw are plastic and stone. They were/are developed for two main reasons:

  1. To trick people into thinking that it is a genuine whale tooth
  2. For a souvenir which is much less expensive than a genuine scrimshaw piece

What to Look for in Scrimshaw

In this section I will take you through some of the common characteristics that you should look for in your scrimshaw piece to determine whether or not it is fake or real.

1. Cracks – It’s natural that over time the tooth is very likely to crack or at the very least have some kind of hairline cracks appearing on the tooth somewhere. Usually, these start at the base and run up to the tip of the tooth, but they can vary. Forgers will attempt to include cracks on the tooth, so one sure fire way to see if it was created artifically is to look for ink in the crack. Why ink? Well, because they will make the crack first and then add the scrimshaw afterwards so ink will get inside. Use a magnifying glass to check properly.

Another possibility is that the whale tooth is actually antique but the scrimshaw was added recently. Again, the ink in crack check will help you distinguish if this is the case.

2. Colour – Also known as the patina, we are referring to the colour of the tooth. A genuine piece will usually be different shades of colour all over, ranging from white to brown to gold and everything in between. This happens naturally over time, unless the item has been kept in a glass cabinet for its whole life which means that it could still be as white as when it was originally created.

A fake usually has a uniform colour all over because the forger has dipped it in tea to stain it or used some other soaking kind of method.

3. Cavities & Circles – Whale teeth have large cavities at the base and extend up to smaller ones towards the tip of the tooth. The best idea is to compare an authentic piece and know your way around it very well then compare it to a fake one.

The various, natural materials that are found in the whale tooth result in small circles around the top of the tooth. These small circles will most likely not be present on replicas.

4. Condition – With age comes decay and whale teeth are no exception. You should be able to see a build up of dust and debris inside any small cracks which are on the tooth, as this is natural and it will not be easy to remove the dirt as it has built up over many decades. It’s unlikely that you will find a perfect specimen of a tooth. More likely is that you will find them with abrasions, cracks, scrapes, etc all over them.

5. Back Story – The better the back story to the originality of the whale tooth the more likely it is to be real. For example, let’s suppose that you have original photos of the tooth from 50 years ago, handed down from generation to generation. That would help in identifying if the tooth was real or not.

6. Inscriptions – Genuine scrimshaws are usually quite unassuming, modest and plain whereas more modern pieces are more likely to have very decorative, impressive works of art inscribed on them. This helps wow the buyer and add glamour to the piece. You should familiarise yourself with what kinds of inscriptions are most common on the pieces that you are looking to buy.

Hopefully this has helped you to understand a little more about whether or not your antique scrimshaw piece is real or not. For more information you can check out a few places online, such as