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
elephant, walrus, hippopotamus, whale, norwal, mammoth, mastodon, and wild boar (wart hog).
Without going in the characteristic of all ivories, I will concentrate on elephant ivory. First there is
"green" or "live" ivory usually referred to as "new" ivory (not necessarily newly carved). This ivory
was usually taken from live elephants (pouched?). But also, keep in mind that the natives of Africa
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 Africa. The elephant was (is) a prime target. This new ivory is
warm in color, translucent and dries out much lighter. Then there is African elephant and the Asiatic
elephant. The Asiatic ivory is a denser white and is more open of grain and softer then African
ivory. This is why most India carvings are so intricate, they used the ivory from Asiatic 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 Western Africa Ivory and Eastern Africa Ivory. The ivory from the eastern side of Africa is
referred to as "soft ivory" which is duller and contains more moisture and stands changes in
temperature better. The ivory from the western part of Africa is referred to as "hard ivory" which is
glassy and translucent. The Japanese used a lot of the western ivory for their okimonos.
So, how 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 criss cross. 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 leave a tiny tiny mark. If it is a resin, it will enter the item and produce a little crater around the hole. Now the big testů smell the "smoke" that comes of the test as you are poking it. If it is real ivory, it will have that unmistakable
smell of the dentist's office when you had that root canal (stomach turning). 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 than that of burning tooth.
Most bone carvings are "capped" on the top and bottom as all bones are hollow. If an item is
carved thinly enough to be carved from the wall of the bone (usually not thicker than 3/4") it may
appear to be ivory. But, bone is absolutely free of grain and will ALWAYS have little "pock marks" (sometimes brown and sometimes not) in it where the marrow or blood was. You may have to use a loupe to see these pock marks. So in conclusion, if it resists heat, smells like crap, and has any grain (especially crosshatching), you have the real deal. Do a little experimenting with items you know are
fake and real and see the difference. After you get used to the difference, you can start telling the
difference with most pieces by style of carving. Rest assured that anything I promote as ivory
IS ivory. If you want more info on hippo, mammoth, or walrus, let me know.....