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The Clearance Items

Ivory, Bone, or Plastic

A guide to identifying Ivory and Ivory Substitutes


There are many items on the Market today being represented and sold as Ivory that really aren't. This may be due to intentional deception or innocent ignorance. Next to the term "Antique", this is the most abused of all descriptions used to sell Asian Collectibles. Knowing what material an item you own or are considering buying is made from is important for several reasons. In addition to the dramatic difference in value between genuine materials and synthetics, it is important to know whether you are buying from a reputable dealer or one that misrepresents their products and sells you items made from plastic and resin, or even worse, someone that deals in illegal Elephant Ivory and supports the poaching of elephants that continues today around the world. 


So how do you tell what is Ivory and what isn't?

We have put together this guide to walk you through the process that we have used over the years to verify the items we buy and sell to make sure that our customers receive exactly what they ordered and that we never do business with artists that still use elephant ivory or attempt to sell synthetic items as genuine.

You will need the following items:

  • Good lighting source (that big ball in the sky works great)

  • Magnifying Glass or Jeweler's Loupe

  • Protractor (you can print one here if you don't have one)

  • A Needle or Pin and something to hold it with (it is going to be heated)

  • A Flame - Matches, Lighter, or Candle (don't worry, this is for after we know the piece is plastic)

Step One:

The first step, is to visually inspect the piece looking for patterns or grain in the piece. Look for flat parts or areas with minimal carving and scrimshaw. Inspect this area using a magnifier. You are looking for grain patterns or lines. There will be two different patterns present. First will be somewhat parallel lines that would have been running along the length of the tooth or tusk the piece is carved from. Perpendicular to these lines will be a cross-section grain pattern. This cross-section should either look like V's or circular/parallel lines. If the lines form V's, it is either Elephant Ivory or Mammoth Ivory. These V's are known as Schreger Lines. The angle of the Schreger lines will help us determine if the piece is Elephant or Mammoth ivory.

Step Two:

If you found Schreger Lines, Click Here to Continue - If the lines are straight from opposing angles, circular, or there are no lines, continue reading, we are getting there.

If you are not sure what a Mammoth is: Click Here

Step Three:

If you found no lines or patterns at all, skip right to the synthetic section and go for the pin test. Click Here for the pin test.

Step Four:

At this point, we have eliminated Elephant Ivory, Mammoth Ivory, and obvious plastic. Next we are going to identify or eliminate bone as the material used to make the piece. Bone is very easy to identify, but often hard to accept, especially if you invested a considerable sum for a particular piece. Unlike teeth and tusks, bones have tiny canals that run through them to carry nutrients and house nerves and other organic material. Often times, some of this organic material adheres to the walls of these canals and turns dark as it decays. In well bleached pieces, this organic material may be very hard to see but the canals are still there and will show if you move the piece back and forth to reflect the light.

Patches of dark spots and/or canals are generally easy to spot and resemble Dad's face at bedtime or Saturday afternoon. Click Here for pictures of bone pieces with the dark patches visible.

Another tell-tale sign that a larger piece is made of bone is that numerous pieces of bone need to be glued together or Laminated to make an item larger than a couple inches wide. Here are some pictures of laminated bone. Look for the seams.

Step Five:

Now we are down to Hippo or other mammal, Marine Ivory, Vegetable Ivory (Tagua Nut), and Synthetic Ivory. Let's start with trying to find the synthetic pieces first. There are a couple quick ways to narrow this down. Synthetic Ivory will have grain lines in one direction, but when looking at the opposite angle, you will not see any lines; the ends of the lines on a synthetic piece will make a speckled pattern. Please note that if the speckles are black, you may be looking at a bone piece and you need to go back to the bone section. If the piece was intended as a fake, this surface will be disguised to hide this giveaway speckled pattern. This surface is usually the bottom of the piece. 

Two different methods are used to make detection difficult.  Either the bottom is so heavily scrimshawed and colored that you can't see the grain, or it is ground very roughly. Since many collectors and dealers look first at the bottom of a piece, genuine ivory will only have the signature of the artist since the grain confirms the pieces authenticity and value. An artist is not going to spend countless hours carving a netsuke, snuff bottle or okimono only to destroy the bottom. Click here to see a snuff bottle that was sold as ivory, but is actually made from poly-resin. Click here for more pictures of synthetic ivory and for the final test to confirm that your piece is made from some type of synthetic material.

Step Six:

We are finally down to pieces that have straight grain lines in one direction and straight or circular lines in the other direction. This takes us down to Animals and Vegetables.

Hippo Ivory and Tagua Nut both have similar grain patterns.

Hippo Ivory has very fine, concentric lines and is heavier than mammoth ivory or Tagua nut. Many hippo ivory pieces will also have small patches of bright white. This is the outer enamel layer and lets you know that the piece is hippo. 

Unlike Elephant Ivory, it is legal to buy and sell Hippo Ivory. Hippo Ivory trade is controlled by international trade agreements and restrictions. For it to move in or out of the United States, it must be accompanied by a CITES Certificate that traces the finished piece back to its origin. (CITES = Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species)

For information on other types of animal tusks and teeth we recommend this article from the US Fish and Wildlife Administration.


 

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