Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Authentic or not authentic? That is the question!

The carved ivory on the left is authentic.
Dad served as a pilot in WWII in India
and brought back the carved ivory rose for my Mom,
who he secretly married before heading to India.

A number of years ago at a dusty little thrift shop in Redlands, I came into possession of an old necklace. I tucked it away for future use, forgot about it, but in hunting through some boxes I came across it again. I had a strong suspicion that the carved ivory elephants and beads weren't real ivory. The beads on the right above are from that salvaged necklace.

I will be uploading the beads to West As the Crow Flies, but I wanted to make certain I knew if they were authentic ivory, bone or resin.

I went online and came across the following article by Pacific City Antiques Gallery. It provided a lot of insight about various types of ivory, which I found helpful. The test to determine authenticity was also interesting.

There were a couple of comments about poaching that I can't really stand behind, but I don't know when this online entry was made. I found it helpful enough to include the entire article here.

I tested the faux ivory beads and, indeed, they melted in an inconspicuous place and there was the definite smell of plastic. Nonetheless, they are lovely beads and I know someone will be tickled pink to purchase them!

Ivory ... Is It Fake?

"There is always that fear that the treasure you just bought is a fake. I think the fear is exaggerated. After some experience handling ivory, one can easily distinguish most 'fakes'. Fakes are usually made from resins. Sometimes these resins will be blended with the remnants of ivory or bone carvings ground up to a fine powder. They then mix it with resin and cast them in a mold and then 'clean' them up by hand (sometimes not). They usually stain them a very dark, heavy stain then wipe off the high areas to give the impression of 'wear'.There is also 'French ivory', 'celluloid', or 'ivrine'. This type of man made material looks like ivory with very nice grain. However, the grain is very wide and consistent (too consistent.) This material was used mostly for dresser accessories such as brushes, combs, change boxes, letter openers, page turners, etc., very few figures, although I have seen them. Resin items will not have the weight of ivory. Ivory has a very heavy specific gravity compared to most materials.

Now let's talk about ivory. There are many types of 'real' ivory. Even though some consider anything but Western African Elephant ivory 'fake', this is not true. Netsuke and Okimono carvers used a variety of natural materials, not just elephant ivory.

When someone asks me what I collect, because I collect more than Netsuke and ivory, I tell them 'hand carved items made from natural materials'. It is the art I am after, it is just a coincidence that the vehicle is ivory.

Real ivory comes from the tusks or teeth of mammals. Some of these mammals live in the sea, some on land. One thing they have in common is they are all 'long lived'. Some types of real ivory are elephant, walrus, hippopotamus, whale, norwal, mammoth, mastodon, and wild boar (warthogs).

Without going into the characteristic of all ivories, I will concentrate on elephant ivory. First, 'green' or 'live' ivory usually referred to as 'new' ivory (not necessarily newly carved). 

This ivory was usually taken from live elephants (poached?) But also, keep in mind the natives would kill elephants to eat and then harvest the tusks to sell later to the ivory buyers. Not all elephants that were poached were killed just for their tusks. Imagine having to feed a tribe of 300 natives daily in the barren plains of African. The elephant was a prime target. This new ivory is warm in color, translucent and dries out much lighter.

Then there is African elephant ivory and Asian elephant ivory. The Asian ivory is a denser white and is more open of grain and softer than African ivory. This is why most India carvings are so intricate, they used the ivory from Asian elephants, which is much easier to carve.

So the old fable of 'ivory grain' is not dependable to tell 'real ivory.' Some ivories have little grain.

There is also Western Africa ivory and Eastern Africa ivory. The ivory from the eastern side of African is referred to as 'soft ivory', which is more dull and contains more moisture and stands changes in temperature better. The ivory from Western Africa is referred to as 'hard ivory', which is glassy and translucent.

The Japanese used a lot of the Western African ivory for their Okimonos.

So, now that you are totally confused about the many types of ivory, I will tell you that elephant ivory does not always have obvious grain. I use a 15x loupe to inspect for grain. On the bottom of most carvings you like to see the crosshatching where the grains crisscross. This cannot be 'faked', but also does not mean it is not ivory if absent. Hippo ivory will have fine grain but no crosshatching.


The tried and true method to test ivory is the famous 'hot pin test'. This method is used by beginners and experts alike. Because true ivory is virtually impenetrable with heat, this is a good test and will not damage the item if it is 'real'.

Take a pin, large needle, or better yet, a large straightened out safety pin, and heat the tip RED-HOT. Poke the item somewhere that it will not show too bad. I use the Netsuke hole. If it is real ivory, it will NOT penetrate and only leaves a tiny, tiny mark. If it is resin, it will enter the item and produce a little crater around the hole.

Now the big test. Smell the 'smoke' that comes of the test as you are poking the item. If it is real ivory, it will have that unmistakable smell of the dentist's office, when you had that root canal. It smells  like burning tooth, because it IS.  If it smells like burning plastic, it IS.

Now, bone is also resistant to heat, but not as much as ivory. The smell is less, or hardly at all, and is different from burning tooth. Bone is absolutely free of grain and will always have little pock marks, where the marrow or blood was. One may need a loupe to see such pock marks ..."

www.asian-arts.net/oriental-treats/fake.html (Pacific City Antiques Gallery)

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