In October 2003 while perusing canes on eBay, I came across a stick that appeared to me to be most exceptional. The seller described the cane as follows: “A great identified sea captain’s cane…ivory knob engraved, “Captn James L. Marion Bark Rothschild Orleans…fantastic nautical compass sign on top, inlaid into the ivory….looks to be baleen or shell and mother of pearl center…big thick cane stick, measures 32”…overall this cane is 34” long…the stick has a horn tip…real nice historic ID cane…should be in a fine collection…good luck…” Before bidding, I checked the seller’s feedback, which I found to be very good (99.3% positive). I e-mailed the seller and asked what the shaft was made of, asked about provenance, age range, and whether or not he believed the stick to be all original. As a seller of very fine canes and other antiquities, I felt he could be believed. The seller indicated the stick had a Malacca shaft, believed it to be entirely original, and dated it from between 1850-1870. He made no mention of provenance. Happily, I proved to be the high bidder. And so my adventure began.
The stick arrived, and it was even more beautiful than I had imagined. The ivory handle appeared genuine, with a beautiful age patina and quite a bit of natural checking. A compass-shaped design was inlaid in the center. The four main rays of the compass appeared to be made of tortoiseshell, separated by four lesser rays of incised lines radiating off from a central “artery” (much like a leaf), with a mother-of-pearl square at the center. Between the handle and the honey colored Malacca shaft was a thin collar, which at first glance appeared to be baleen. The ferrule was made of horn. Written along the bottom periphery of the ivory handle is scrimshawed, in old style script, Captn James L. Marion Bark Rothschild Orleans.
The same weekend I was attending a Canes Through The Ages auction in Richmond, Illinois and brought the cane along to ask the opinion of “Y,” both a collector and seller of fine sticks for many years, well respected in the field, and whom I consider an expert. “Y” indicated that although the cane was indeed old, he believed the scrimshaw was added at a later time, perhaps at the turn of the century, but was not original to the cane. He said it was unfortunate that such a fine old cane had been tampered with in that way. He asked how much I had paid for the cane, which I told him. He said I had not overpaid for the stick.
Of course I was disappointed that “Y” believed the compass and scrimshaw were not original to the cane. However I decided to continue my own research and gather as much information as I could with regard to whaler-made or nautical canes, and the art of scrimshaw.
In searching the web for articles on scrimshaw, it became clear that a lot of time, effort, and dollars are spent creating fake pieces of scrimshaw, so much in fact that an actual term, “fakeshaw” has been created. My heart sank as I wondered whether or not I had purchased a piece of my own fakeshaw. After all, I had no provenance for my stick, only the seller’s assertion that the stick was all original.
My next inquiry was directed at a person knowledgeable in the art of scrimshaw. I sent her a link to the actual auction so she could view the seller’s pictures. “T” indicated that the ivory had a lot of natural checking which was dark in color (due to the oils on the hand), indicating the cane was used a good deal and the ivory was older. She indicated if the scrimshaw was original to the cane, there should be a fair amount of wear to the artwork. I had also sent “T” a few pictures of my own with much greater detail. I received a second e-mail from her, and she indicated, I could not tell from the other pictures you sent that four of the points on the compass are inlayed. With the enlarged pictures to view I have changed my opinion completely. I believe that the artwork is original to the cane or at least very close to when the cane was made. The style of lettering on the name as well as the depth at which it was carved and also the wear on the scrimshaw, showing in the detailed pictures, to me indicates it is quite old. What a treasure. If ever you find out what was used to color the scrimshaw I would be interested to know.
I closely examined the materials inlaid into the handle, and the ivory itself. I checked out several books on ivory from the library. I also purchased a small reference book on ivory called Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory Substitutes, which listed the different types of ivory and the differences between them. Although at times the differences are easily discernible, in some cases a microscope, or opinion rendered by an expert in the field is necessary to make the almost invisible distinctions. I was able to determine that the stick’s handle was in fact made of elephant ivory, not sperm whale or walrus ivory, given the unmistakable crosshatching of the ivory. If this indeed was a sea captain’s cane, the fact the handle was made from elephant ivory was rather inconsistent with the traditional shipboard pastime of 19th-century mariners, the defining characteristic being the use of byproducts of the whale fishery itself, including sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, baleen, and skeletal whalebone, often used in combination with other found materials, typically bits and pieces of wood, metal seashells, tortoiseshell and cloth. So it seems that elephant ivory would not have typically been used.
Having determined that the ivory was genuine elephant ivory, I questioned whether or not the scrimshaw was antique. In his article, Scrimshaw – Real or Repro, Bill Momsen says, Under 30x magnification, observe how the engraved lines cut across vertical age cracks. If the engraved line is deeper than the natural crack, the work is of recent origin. Under 16x magnification, I noted that the engraved lines did not appear to be deeper than the natural cracks; rather, they seemed to float above them.
Regarding the inking process found in scrimshaw pieces, I learned that the characteristic basic black pigment was lampblack, a suspension of carbon in oil, the product of combustion, easily obtained from shipboard tryworks (oil cookery), or from oil lamps. Tobacco juice was not used as pigment for scrimshaw. Colored pigments for polychrome (multi-colored) works included verdigris (a green deposit naturally forming on copper and brass), and various homemade fruit and vegetable dyes, and commercially produced India or China ink.
I also searched the web for information on the art of scrimshaw, and again went back to the library and checked out some books to familiarize myself with the differences in appearance between old and new scrimshaw. Other information I gleaned regarding antique scrimshaw vs. fakeshaw:
- Virtually all fake scrimshaw is identified by date, title or name. In other words, guilty until proven innocent.
- Ink and paints in the cracks of the engraved lines in antique pieces should appear dried out and “crackly.” Old debris, dust, dirt, scratches, etc., helps one decide the age of the engraved work.
Under 16x magnification and careful scrutiny, the inked areas did appear dried and “crackly” with obvious areas of missing ink. I also saw scratch marks that could possibly be attributed to whatever carving instrument was used to create the original etching.
But I still needed some real provenance that could be obtained only by searching for and finding information on the names scrimshawed into the ivory.
I e-mailed G.W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport, The Museum of American and the Sea inquiring about a vessel called Orleans, or a captain named James L. Marion Bark Rothschild. I received an e-mail from “W” stating, The name of the captain was James L. Marion, and the name of his vessel—a bark—was Rothschild. Having no knowledge of vessels, I thought Orleans was the name of the vessel and Bark Rothschild the latter part of Captain James Marion’s name! Although embarrassed, I had learned something—that a bark was a sailing vessel.
Peabody Museum Publication, Rigging of American Sailing Vessels provided a picture and description of a bark as a three-masted vessel with the foremast and mainmast square rigged and the mizzenmast fore-and-aft rigged. The mizzenmast carries no yards: there is a hoist-and-lower fore-and-aft sail and a gaff topsail. This rig became very popular in the mid-19th century, as it required fewer crew to handle the sails when the boats were down for whales, thus saving the owners money.
I contacted Mystic Seaport, and “W’s” research uncovered several facts. The bark Rothschild was indeed a whaling vessel, sailing during part of her career from Orleans, Massachusetts (Cape Cod). The vessel made 5 voyages from that town between 1854 and 1861 (Rothschild was condemned in 1861), but none under Captain James Marion. In fact, “W” was unable to find out anything about James Marion. She indicated there was a bit of a mystery surrounding one of Rothschild’s masters, in that the man shown as Orasmus W. Allerton was also known as Orasmus T. Marton, noting the similarity between Marton and Marion. She indicated that prior to her use as a whaling vessel, Rothschild was engaged in a number of commercial voyages to Europe, Africa, Australia, and South America, with no Orleans or James Marion connection seen. “W” indicated she would pass the images of my stick to their senior curator to see if he had an opinion.
“B”, senior curator at Mystic Seaport Museum indicated, It is my experience that mother-of-pearl and other inlay work was popular(though not exclusively) from the 1820’s to about 1870. This would seem to correspond with your dates. Style wise the cane, from what I can see of it, is certainly mid-nineteenth century.
My next contact was Kendall Institute, Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum. Having verified that the bark Rothschild was a whaling vessel at one time sailing out of Orleans, Massachusetts, I was now hoping to find information on her Master, Captain James Marion. “L”, assistant librarian wrote, The sources in our library and archives do not identify James Marion as a whaling captain at any time from any American port. However, I did find a James Marion on a crew list that is part of the online whaling crew lists database sponsored by the New Bedford Free Public Library. James Marion was a carpenter on board the Ship Hudson of Fairhaven on a whaling voyage from 1855-1859. A logbook for this voyage is in the collection of the Kendall Institute (KWM #105). The captains of the Bark Rothschild from 1854-1861 were Orasmus W. Allerton (3 voyages), Holman (no first name), and A. J. Allerton. At that point, I explained to “L” that I had a cane with a handle inscribed, Captain James L (S?) Marion, Bark Rothschild, Orleans. I indicated I found it interesting that James Marion was a carpenter, and wondered if he had made the cane himself. I also told her that I had learned that Orasmus W. Allerton was also known as Orasmus T. Marton, which is fairly close to Marion. I then asked if the ship Hudson of Fairhaven was in close proximity to Orleans, Massashusetts. “L” responded by saying, You have some interesting clues in your message. The captain of the 1855 voyage of the ship Hudson of Fairhaven was David Marston. “L” photocopied and forwarded to me the actual handwritten pages of log entries by the Masters of both the Rothschild and the Hudson from the Dennis Wood Abstracts. Although difficult to read given the highly stylized penmanship, it was clear that Rothschild was a whaling vessel that sailed both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Hudson was also a whaling vessel, sailing the Pacific in 1855, the same year Rothschild was sailing the Atlantic!
“L” suggested that I send snapshots or digital images of the cane to “F”, senior curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, as he is very knowledgeable about pieces such as this. “L” further indicated that the town of Fairhaven is located on the other side of the Acushnet River from the harbor of New Bedford. Fairhaven was part of the New Bedford customs district for ship registration purposes. Orleans is on Cape Cod and was probably part of the Barnstable ship registration district. She further suggested that I contact the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Mass., as it is a good source for local history. I wrote to “F”, senior curator at New Bedford Whaling Museum, and sent him pictures.
While awaiting “F’s” reply, I mailed the Sturgis Library, and “L”, Library Director at Sturgis Library sent me copies of pages out of Whaling Masters and Whaling Voyages which included entries for Rothschild with a hailing port of Boston, MA. Rothschild made 3 trips out of Boston: 1850-1851 (Master Leonard Small), 1851-1852 (Master Small), and 1852-1854 (Master James Small). Between 1854 and 1864, it appears Rothschild’s hailing port changed to Orleans, MA.
I also spoke with “B” at the Orleans Historical Society. “B” was able to provide me some physical information about the Rothschild. Built in 1838 by Brewer in Main, she weighed 261 tons, had a width of 24 feet, 101 feet in length, with a draw of 12 feet. “B” indicated that the Rothschild was a deepwater ship and could not have left from Orleans, as the water would have been too shallow! Most of the ports along the way would have been too shallow; Boston would not have been too shallow. He also indicated that the Rothschild was probably a merchant ship (no doubt prior to her use as a whaling vessel). He did provide me with other potential information sources.
In her book Canes in the United States, Catherine Dike says, One firm guideline is that handles of “old” canes are never etched and colored with nautical scenes. The moisture of the hand and the wear of usage could erase the etching and ink upon the knob. In another passage, Dike says, When a whaleman retired, he continued to “scrimshaw” at home, using more sophisticated tools. It was a good way to pass the time and earn a little money. Later, others took over the work, copying the old techniques, making it difficult if not impossible to date any particular cane. She further elaborates, The whaling industry collapsed at the turn of the century. Some experts date “old” scrimshaw as prior to World War I; others allow the period up to 1924, when the last American whaler, the “Wanderer”, sank.
“F”, senior curator at New Bedford Whaling Museum did respond to my inquiry: In response to your email inquiry (received while I was out of the country): I can tell you authoritatively that your piece is NOT scrimshaw, old or otherwise, and is not a nautical piece. The ivory is unequivocally elephant ivory — almost certainly made to look nautical and look old. More than that I cannot tell you without rendering a firsthand examination in macro and micro scale; however, I am convinced that a proper forensic workup will almost certainly reveal it to be an out-and-out fake, and not antique at all. Sorry for the bad news.
I have not yet had a forensic workup performed, in part because I choose to live with the mystery for a while longer. I appreciate the help I received from the experts in my search for answers. Yet, how expert are the experts? “B” at the Orleans Historical Society indicated that the Rothschild was a deepwater ship and could not have left from Orleans, as the water would have been too shallow. But there is clear-cut documentation to indicate that the Rothschild made 5 trips out of Orleans. “T” believed the artwork was original to the cane or at least very close to when the cane was made based on the style of lettering, the depth at which it was carved and also the wear on the scrimshaw. “F’s” conclusion, however, is in sharp contradiction to the assessment I received in Richmond from “Y”, who had actually examined the piece “in hand,” while “F” was able to offer his perspective based only on digital images. “Y” had confirmed the period in which the cane was crafted and expressed doubt only as to the history of the etching. Rothschild was in fact a real bark sailing out of Orleans, Massachusetts during the same time period the Hudson sailed out of neighboring Fairhaven with James L. Marion, a carpenter, aboard.
“Fakeshaw” comes in a variety of levels. Some, directed at the more gullible or at the tourist souvenir market, is factory produced using electronic etching and inking processes and generally depicts whaling or maritime images on ivory-looking synthetic materials. These are easy to spot and easily dismissed. But more care, time, and effort are required to produce “fakeshaw” designed to fool a more discerning collectors’ market. The actual process used to produce the fake must necessarily mirror the time, skill, and technique originally required to craft a genuine article of scrimshaw. Additional care must then be taken to “age” the piece to augment its plausibility. In these cases, it is not the art of scrimshaw which is being faked, but rather the historical significance of the piece. In the case of my artifact, I have wondered why a person would take all the time and effort to craft an authentic appearing article of scrimshaw, do enough research to provide it with the name of an actual whaling ship, correctly identifying its harbor of registry, and then damage the credibility of the fake by “captaining” it with a false name, when the true captain’s name could be so easily obtained by an amateur, as I had done? It just didn’t add up for me.
What do I believe? I believe my stick dates from the 1850’s-1870’s and was made by James L. Marion, a retired carpenter. While he etched, inked and inlaid magic into a piece of elephant ivory he acquired in some far away port, perhaps he dreamed of being a captain aboard a whaling vessel and chose the name Rothschild, a bark hailing from Orleans and sailing at the same time as his own Hudson out of Fairhaven.
What do I know? Nothing, for certain, except that I have acquired a lovely and beautifully handcrafted walking stick which looks nice set amongst my other canes. And that in pursuit of information regarding my purchase, I’ve acquired a fair amount of knowledge about the history of American whaling and the art of scrimshaw.
- New Bedford Whaling Museum – Overview of Scrimshaw – The Whalers’ Art.
- Momsen, Bill, Scrimshaw – Real or Repro?
- Paul Madden’s Antique Scrimshaw Gallery.
- Dike, Catherine, Canes in the United States.