Cowan's Corner

19th Century Sailor Art is a Hot Collecting Market

By Wes Cowan

At one time, New Bedford, Mass., was known as the city that lit the world. No more. Today, New Bedford, like many New England towns, has fallen on hard times. It’s still the home to great museums and is blessed with its deep water harbor, but its 19th Century moniker is a thing of the past.

During the first half of the 19th Century, New Bedford was the home of the American whaling fleet. Whaling ships left port for voyages that lasted as long as four years and came home laden with oil extracted from the flesh of mammoth cetaceans. Fortunes were made from this oil which, while used in lighting, was far more valuable as a lubricant for machinery. Until oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in the late 1860s, whales provided most of the oil for the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. This discovery of oil, along with declining cetacean populations, spelled the end of the whaling industry.

Life on a whale ship is probably best described as one of intense periods of boredom interspersed with brief interludes of excitement and hard, grinding work. Sailors on a whaling voyages could be gone from home for periods of three, or even four years, and most of this time was spent traveling to and from the whaling grounds in the North Atlantic, South Pacific or Arctic regions. It was during this down time that sailors made mementos of their voyage and sentimental tokens for loved ones utilizing the durable teeth, bones and other products of the whales they hunted and killed.

Utilizing sharp steel-steeltipped awls, sailors engraved whales’ teeth and bones with various scenes and figures, sculpting them into all sorts of useful tools and fanciful objects with knives and other tools. Today, this group of antiques is known as “scrimshaw” and the sailor artists as “scrimshanders”.

Collectors have long prized the maritime mementos, and pay large sums for great examples. While an average tooth might fetch prices in the low hundreds, important examples of scrimshawed teeth, those from important whaling ships or that feature exquisite engraving, have sold for as much as six figures.

The most valuable examples of scrimshaw are those produced during the first half of the 19th Century. By the 1860s, whale populations had been decimated by over-hunting, and with the discovery of land-based petroleum, the whaling industry went into a decline from which it never recovered.

The art of the scrimshander died a fairly rapid death. While contemporary scrimshanders still exist, they primarily work with teeth imported from whales hunted by the Russians and Japanese. It is illegal to import the teeth or products of many whales and marine mammals, and collectors should be aware of not only national, but also state laws regulating the sale of the by-products of these magnificent mammals. 

About the author: Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at



A scrimshaw whale tooth engraved with a mermaid and flags; $1,495 in Cowan’s Feb. 2006 Decorative Arts Auction.


A fine example of a pie crimper, or “jagger,” made from whale bone and whale ivory; $2,760 in Cowan’s Feb. 2005 Decorative Arts Auction.


A Continental whale’s tooth engraved with a portrait of a lady; $3,408 in Cowan’s Feb. 2009 Decorative Arts Auction.








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