By W.A. Demers
NEW BEDFORD, MASS. — Stuart Frank, director of the New Bedford Whaling Museum here, happens to live in nearby Foxborough, Mass., which sports fans know as the home of Gillette Stadium, from whence the NFL’s New England Patriots football franchise hails. When there is a big game or concert at the stadium, upwards of 60,000 to 90,000 fans converge on the town, which has a population of about 16,000. “The local cops react by closing roads so they don’t have to deal with traffic,” said Frank. “The Foxborough Police Department’s actions count as the NFL’s Number Two squeeze play.”
The analogy fits a looming issue facing the world of scrimshaw and antique ivory dealers and collectors, one that was launched nationally on July 1 of last year when President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13648: Combating Wildlife Trafficking. The order seeks to protect endangered wildlife, especially African elephants and rhinoceroses, which are being killed for their ivory tusks and horns, and to stem “illegal trade in wildlife and derivative parts and products” in a variety of ways, one of which could ultimately result in a blanket ban on the trade of ivory as a way to reduce both illegal poaching and illegal trade, as well as the demand that fuels those activities.
In issuing the order, the administration also established an advisory council charged with developing a national strategy — and none of its members has an association with the antiques community, according to Andrew Jacobson, dealer and appraiser of marine antiques, scrimshaw specialist and astute analyst of the marketplace. Jacobson is also spokesman for a new association, the Antique Scrimshaw Collectors Association (ASCA), which seeks to retain the current regulatory system. That system, in Jacobson’s words, “is working pretty well. Our primary objective is to retain the current regulations that allow legal trade of antique scrimshaw and objects of cultural importance. We fully support the suppression of illegal trade in protected species.”
Jacobson offers up another analogy. “Anyone familiar with the fishing industry is aware of trawling, where you throw out a big net that catches everything, with the unfortunate result that you end up killing some of the sea life that you did not intend to catch,” he explained. “The simplest way to enforce a law is to make enforcement easy. We’re just asking that people think this thing through before enacting an law that endangers reasonable commerce of culturally important artifacts.”
He admits that as a dealer and collector he has a financial stake. “I’ve got a horse in the race.”
So, too, does Paul E. Vardeman, a retired judge from Kansas City, Mo., who has been collecting scrimshaw for about 50 years, beginning when “you could buy a piece for $35,” he recalled. Vardeman is both a major collector, a scrimshaw historian and, according to the whaling museum’s Frank, “my choice for ‘Dean of Scrimshaw Collectors.’”
“Scrimshaw is one of America’s historical and cultural art forms practiced by whalemen as early as the 1830s and collected by many museums, including the Smithsonian and Peabody Essex and many individuals,” said Vardeman. He related that US President John F. Kennedy was himself a collector and was buried along with a scrimshaw whale tooth in his casket.
Vardeman, like Jacobsen, is worried that environmental activism, however well-intentioned, may broaden the scope of the order to prohibit the sale of scrimshaw, even though US law currently provides an exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) permitting the sale of antique ivory.
Frank, unlike Jacobson and Vardeman, does not deal in antique ivory. As founder and director of the Scrimshaw Forensics Laboratory, he is involved in ASCA primarily in the role of amicus curiae, “As an art historian and museum curator, my interest and concern is the preservation of an exemption for bona fide antique scrimshaw, which constitutes a manifestly significant indigenous occupational genre practiced by American sailors on shipboard from the late colonial period and the classic era of Moby Dick to the Twentieth Century — including African Americans, fugitive slaves, Native Americans, immigrants, merchant sailors from throughout the nation, navy tars, whaling captains and their wives and children and even a few passengers,” he said.
Frank pointed out that no whale was ever killed for the ivory at any time, past or present. “Whale teeth and skeletal bone were strictly and exclusively byproducts of a commercial hunt long gone; thus, the circumstances surrounding antique scrimshaw are indeed very different from those of elephants and rhinos, which are still being slaughtered for the ivory and horn and which are genuinely endangered as a result,” he said.
CITES, an agreement among world governments aimed to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival, was drawn up more than three decades ago. Similarly, in 1989, the African Elephant Conservation Act was enacted to perpetuate healthy populations of African elephants, which were being indiscriminately slaughtered for their ivory tusks.
Frank explained that the proposed legislation includes a CITES-mandated exemption for certain trophy elephant tusks harvested from legitimate, licensed hunts — intended to cull the elephant population in certain African nations — which makes eminent sense from an endangered species point of view. “I have been deposed as an expert witness in federal court on precisely this issue,” he said.
“The exemption for antique ivory under current ESA and CITES regulations makes equally good sense from a cultural and historical point of view, as the profound cultural significance of the artworks is incontrovertible and no whales are being killed. There is no species endangerment connected with antique scrimshaw; it would be a specious catastrophe to throw out the baby with the bathwater, with tragic unintended cultural consequences,” he added.
Vardeman concurred, “Prohibiting the sale of antique scrimshaw will not save a single elephant from the poachers, nor will it have any effect on the survival of protected whales. Some people mistaken believe that sperm whales were killed for their teeth. Not so. The whaling industry provided the oil to light the lamps of America before the discovery of petroleum. The use of whalers of teeth to engrave and carve as trophies of the hunt or souvenirs was simply a byproduct of the great whaling industry.”
Contacted for this article, Jessica Kershaw, spokeswoman for the US Department of the Interior (DOI), stated, “The Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking held its first meeting in December to discuss efforts currently under way and to generate new ideas about actions that federal agencies can take to combat wildlife trafficking both domestically and internationally. Ideas being considered and discussed by the advisory council include administrative actions that the US Fish & Wildlife Service could take to increase restrictions on import and export; and to impose strict controls on domestic elephant ivory trade, effectively ending commercial ivory trade within the United States. These proposals, if adopted into the national strategy, would be one part of a broader set of efforts to reduce demand for ivory within the United States. Those efforts, in turn, would be included in a larger federal effort to combat wildlife trafficking worldwide.”
Possible actions under consideration by the US Fish and Wildlife Service would:
*Prohibit the import of raw and worked ivory, except for certain sport-hunted trophies, and ivory for law enforcement and conservation purposes;
*Prohibit the import of antique and pre-ESA worked ivory for both commercial and noncommercial purposes, except for certain noncommercial uses as part of musical instruments, exhibitions and household effects;
*Limit the import of sport-hunted trophies to two elephants per hunter per year;
*Prohibit the export of worked ivory without an ESA export permit;
*Prohibit interstate commerce in ivory and rhino horn without an ESA permit; and
*Prohibit interstate and intrastate sale of elephant ivory and rhino horn, except for a very limited class of antiques; and for intrastate sale, limited to items that a seller can prove were imported prior to the CITES ban on commercial trade.
The finalized national strategy has not yet been issued, although it had initially been due to be presented to the White House in December 2013. The DOI said it could not comment on the current timeline for its announcement and implementation.