Pacific Galleries will offer an unusual 1926 walrus ivory scrimshaw cribbage board from Nome, Alaska in our upcoming January 11, 2010 auction session.
What is Scrimshaw?
Scrimshaw is the art of intricately decorating bone, teeth or baleen; usually by polishing the medium and then engraving it with needles or knives in a line art style similar to a pen and ink illustration, with some pieces including carved or pierced designs. Inuit and coastal peoples created scrimshaw for centuries, as early as 100-200 A.D., and Western whalers picked up the practice in the early 1800's as a means of passing the time at sea, where ample base materials of bone, teeth and time were readily available. The origin of the word "scrimshaw" is unknown, but according to Merriam-Webster to dates to around 1826, and is possibly a derivation of the British slang term "scrimshanker," (or "time waster"). The scrimshaw designs of whalers naturally tended towards whaling motifs or depictions of women; finished pieces were often given as gifts, but were sometimes sold at port for extra pocket money. Today, depending on the quality, size or age of the piece and the renown of the artist, scrimshaw pieces can be purchased for less than twenty dollars to up to thousands of dollars, and are highly collectible (John F. Kennedy kept scrimshaw in the Oval Office, and occasionally gave it as gifts).
[As a side note for collector's of ivory, elephant ivory from 1947 or later is illegal to purchase or import, when collecting elephant ivory, you should conduct due diligence in researching your potential ivory purchases. If you are importing post 1947 ivory, your new acquisition could be seized by Customs. Check local rules and regulations before buying ivory items.]
The earliest evidence of human occupation in the Nome area goes back 10,000 years, and the Eskimo have lived there for at least 4,000 to 6,000 years. Today this region in Northwest Alaska, just south of the Arctic Circle, is still populated by the Inapiaq, Unalakeet and Yupik peoples. Gold was discovered on Anvil Creek in 1898 by "Three Lucky Swedes," (just a year after the discovery in Dawson Creek in Canada's Yukon Territories that jump started the Klondike Gold Rush). When gold was discovered in beach sands in 1899, Nome's gold rush was on as well.
Amundsen and Alaska
Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen, born on July 16, 1872 in Borge, Norway, is of course most famous for being the first person to reach the South Pole; in fact, Amundsen was also part of the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada's Northwest Passage route to Alaska in 1903. On this expedition he learned many of the survival and hunting skills of the native Inuit, techniques he and his team utilized to reach the South Pole in December, 1911. Amundsen had wanted to be the first person to reach the North Pole, but in 1909 he heard the news that he had beaten to that objective by Robert E. Peary (a claim that has been disputed both then and now), turning Amundsen's attentions to the South Pole.
Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth, Umberto Nobile and a crew of 13 made a dirigible flight over the North Pole in 1926, leaving from Spitzbergen, Norway and landing in Teller, Alaska just 72 hours later, making Amundsen the first person to reach both the South and North Poles. Teller is 65 miles north of Nome by land, and it's possible that the scrimshaw cribbage board consigned to Pacific Galleries was made in commemoration of this historic event. "Teller" is one of the names etched into the back of the piece, which shows coastline and place names near Nome.
The cribbage board that will be offered as Lot 696 in the Pacific Galleries auction session on Monday, January 11 is an approximately 28 inch long piece of walrus ivory with attached pieces that include four carved ivory seals, a polar bear head in slight relief and two "ladder" style pierced pieces that spells out "Nome" and "Alaska 1926." The butt of the horn conceals a compartment that holds four ivory cribbage pegs; as noted, the back of the piece has a map design with names of locations surrounding Nome. The cribbage board is housed in a beveled-edge wood display box. The entire piece is in excellent condition, and represents a rare glimpse into Alaskan history in a form that we don't often see offered at auction. Our specialists have estimated an auction value of $2,000 to $4,500; we'll have to wait and see what the final hammer price is on auction night. For the dedicated collector of ivory, American Folk art, Alaskan memorabilia, or just unique objects, this beautiful representation of the art of scrimshaw would be a very desirable object to add to your collection (and maybe even play a game of cribbage or two).
Lot 696 realized a hammer price of $2,370 on auction night ($2,796 with buyer's premium). The entire auction was very exciting, the other big star items of the evening being the very large collection of Japaense theater masks from the 17th and 18th centuries, which brought in close to $100,000 by themselves. These masks were from the estate of Univesity of Washington Professor Charlies Smith, who had collected them while studying sculpting in bronze in Japan in 1963. It just goes to show, quality and rare items will always do well, no matter what shenanigans the economy is up to.
--Lydia McIntosh, Pacific Galleries staff
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