P.C. from the 805 area asked me to appraiser her early 20th century ivory chess set for a few months now, and I put it off, P.C., because, well, the buying or selling of ivory is, in fact, no longer PC. The import, export and sale of ivory, even within state lines, has become regulated and monitored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; there’s a network of Federal statutory laws and Executive Branch orders, not to mention the scrutiny around ivory by those organizations that fight for conservation of elephants. All ivory is in some sense unsalable, yet some ivory is not from animals at all, as we shall see.
P.C., you should know that the kinds of ivory which for years has been called “true” ivory is defined as the teeth of animals, and most ivory is from the tusks of elephants, mammoths and mastodons. Those kinds of ivory are sourced from buried animals. Yet ancient ivory is so hard to distinguish that mastodon ivory is suspect too.
Bone is NOT ivory and you can tell bone because you can see the evidence of a blood vessel system, and ivory does not have this system. Ivory for millennia is prized because it carved in any direction, which makes it valued for its beauty on piano keys (a hot button issue, as concert halls are having a hard time getting performer’s prized pianos across state lines, as we'll learn). Ivory for millennia has been dyed as half of your set has been, and can be beautifully polished owing to its natural oils.
Other types of antique ivory are hippo, walrus, whale and hornbill birds, as well as non-animal ivory from the inner seed of the South American ivory palm. I can be fooled by synthetic ivory, which was invented as far back as 1865, termed celluloid or casein. The older the ivory-looking object is, the more care was taken to imitate “true” ivory’s graining.
P.C., if your chess set IS ivory there are ways to test for “true” ivory. You need to get your old cigarette lighter out and burn it, and if it does not mark up or emit a bad smell, it is likely ivory of some kind. Synthetic ivory will mark and smell. The same proof is derived with a hot needle, which will cause irreparable damage to non-ivory objects, so I would not try fire.
Nevertheless, P.C., your set is not worth anything on today’s market, because you cannot sell it if it looks anything like ivory. I have a dear client who has Asian Foo dogs of what appear to be ivory and although we have sent photos along to many auction houses, no one want to touch them with a 10-foot pole. Why?
Here are the rules for African ivory, promulgated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
Handlers of antique instruments have contested these laws, because many antique instruments are precious to distinguished performers.
Since value is derived from past sales of similar objects, your set has no market value. Auction houses do not reputably report ANY sales of ivory items since 2014.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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