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Scrimshaw Artists and Collectors Fear Unintended Impact of Proposed Ivory Ban

Ivory has long been sought after by collectors and dealers, as well as craftsmen who transform the prized material into works of art. But these days, working with ivory is risky. Critics say poachers kill approximately 96 African elephants per day for their ivory, and they want to put a stop to it.

A new law being introduced in Massachusetts would strengthen existing Federal laws by banning the importation and sale of all ivory, regardless of its age. Whale ivory is included in the new law, and local scrimshaw artists say it amounts to vast government overreach, does nothing to stop poaching, and could cost some artists their livelihoods. 

Michael Vienneau of Nantucket has worked as a scrimshaw artist, or scrimshander, for 41 years. There used to be more than 30 scrimshanders on Nantucket; nowadays, Vienneau is one of only a handful left.

Vienneau’s small shop is filled with scenes of lighthouses, windmills, old ships and Nantucket maps, all intricately etched onto pieces of ivory. But this year could be his last, if the proposed law is passed.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
Michael Vienneau's Nantucket shop sells many small scrimshaw items like these.

“If this law goes through, it’ll put me outta business after 41 years,” he said.

The law proposes to ban the import and sale of all forms of ivory for commercial purposes, including whale’s teeth. As currently written, it makes no distinction between newer ivory and ivory that was acquired legally prior to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

James Russell, President of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, said there’s a massive list of items which contain various pieces of ivory.

“That includes any scrimshaw which has been bequeathed, it includes rosary beads with ivory, it includes guns with ivory,” said Russell.

His museum houses the largest scrimshaw collection in the world, and it could be severely affected if the law goes through.

“We’ve had two donations which came into us in the past month or so which have been put on indefinite hold because the appraiser is unwilling to put a value to the ivory,” said Russell.

Massachusetts State Representative Lori Erlich of Marblehead co-sponsored the ivory bill after hearing about the high number of African elephants lost to poachers every day.

“There are estimates that the species will be extinct around a decade from now,” Erlich explained. “So when I heard that number, it just struck me as, it’s now or never. We have to step up and do something.”

The bill has the support of 80 co-sponsors.

“You ask yourself, ‘Why? What are we trading for the existence of these gentle, maternal creatures?’ And when the answer is trinkets, it just makes no sense to me,” said Erlich.

But Michael Vienneau and other scrimshanders say that argument implies that any type of ivory is related to the African poaching problem – even the older ivory. Vienneau said he began using mammoth ivory extracted from the Arctic perma-frost.

Credit Brian Morris/WCAI
Vienneau began using ivory from the long-extinct mammoth for his scrimshaw; this would be banned under the proposed law as currently written.

“It was the right thing to do, to switch from elephant ivory – move to mammoth and fossil ivories,” Vienneau said. “There was no guilt associated with it because it was 20,000 years old.”

But mammoth ivory also would be prohibited under the law as currently written. Lori Erlich noted that the Boston area in particular is cited as one of the largest markets in the US for the import of illegal elephant ivory.

“What’s happening is new ivory is flooding the market and it’s being aged. It’s being treated to make it look like it’s old ivory. And it’s very hard – nearly impossible – for people to tell if it’s new ivory or old ivory.

In 2011, a Nantucket scrimshaw artist was convicted of illegally purchasing ivory on the black market from a Ukranian dealer. Michael Vienneau says that makes all scrimshanders look bad.

“There’s always one that ruins it for everyone,” Vienneau said with a touch of frustration. “They’re generalizing that we’re all crooks. Everyone I know in the business obeys the law, and we’ve paid the top dollar for obtaining legal, old ivory. And now, it could be across the board – everything we own could be illegal.”

Opponents of the bill have expressed their concerns to legislators behind the ivory effort, and Representative Erlich said lawmakers are willing to compromise.

“We are going to agree to change the language to not include whale teeth, whale bones in this bill,” Erlich said.

James Russell sees that as a good sign. But he says he’s still cautious.

“There aren’t that many scrimshaw advocates in the state of Massachusetts,” Russell said, “and certainly they’re well outnumbered by folks that love and admire elephants.”

Lori Erlich said lawmakers don’t intend to criminalize the possession or inheritance of ivory. She also noted that under the new law, museums will be exempt, so they can still display ivory and purchase ivory collections. But scrimshanders, museum directors and others with a stake in the ivory trade said they’ll rest a lot easier once an amended law – with its promised revisions - is passed and on the books.