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The "desire to acquire" is a sensation that overwhelms all of us at some time in our lives. The right person, the right object and the right time that's all it takes. When that sensation won't go away we become a collector.
Collecting fine art scrimshaw is a passion for some, and it is they who ultimately set the Collector's Value in the world of scrimshaw.
But what factors do collectors consider when separating high-value showpieces of investment quality from the ubiquitous mass of image transfered, group workshop, molded, or mechanically produced scrimshaw that will never meet collectable standards?
First, size is not a substitute for quality. Some of the most expensive and sought after scrimshaw is intentionally small scale and incredibly executed. Novice collectors often mistakenly buy large pieces with poor quality scrimshaw simply because they are overwhelmed by the size of the object. It is only later, when they are more knowledgeable and have a better sense for distinguishing "materials" from collectable "art" that they realize their mistake.
Second, a knowledgeable collector considers the current and future potential of an artist's reputation. Once a scrimshander becomes well known in the art world, their pieces can sell in the four figure range and often go even higher. Even the price of scrimshaw jewelry can be influenced by reputation. Buying based on the potential in an artist's reputation can be difficult to determine, but it can also reap significant future dividends for collectors. Works of scrimshaw with investment value are executed by a single artist whose style is recognizeable throughout a piece. Scrimshaw that is mass-produced in a workshop environment is of little interest to serious collectors.
Third, collectors distinguish quality work by its detail and complexity. The artist's mastery of proper shading is critical to a quality piece of scrimshaw. Whether executed in full color or traditional black and white, the best scrimshanders are masters in the unique way that scrimshaw is shaded. Exquisite detail and complexity often result in a piece that has a near photorealistic quality, much preferred by most collectors. The stippling technique is far more complex and time consuming than the traditional and historically significant cross-hatching and scratching methods, but it can also provide a picture-quality not obtainable using other techniques. Also, while many collectors prefer black and white, which is the classic form of the art, color scrimshaw has gained in popularity over the years and is actually even more complicated and time consuming to execute properly.
Fourth, collectors do consider the material scrimshaw is completed on. Faux ivory scrimshaw is not seriously collected. Most photo-transfer, cast, mechanically, or mass-produced scrimshaw available to the public is done on faux ivory made of plastics and polymers. While avoiding faux ivory, collectors also respect the restrictions on modern ivory and generally avoid these materials unless they were legally obtained. Actually, most collectors don't want a modern ivory piece anyway. They prefer the beauty and awe inspiring thought of work done on a natural artifact of fossil ivory that can be 10,000 years old or older. While in the ground, these ivories take on a natural beauty in subtle colors and hues from the minerals that surrounded them, and a master scrimshander makes good use of incorporating those hues into a quality piece of art.
Fifth, a completed work is most often complimented by the base or stand it is displayed upon and collectors do examine how a piece is based. Fine basing, or display, contributes greatly to the overall esthetic appeal of a completed work. Artists will often spend as much time on the base as they did on the scrimshaw, or they will hire a specialist to create a base for their work. Materials used in a base are often exotic and difficult to work, but the beautiful result is worth the effort and adds significantly to the overall value of a piece.
Sixth, collectors concern themselves with the subject matter of the work. This is where personal taste comes into play, and some collectors are very specific as to what style or theme they want to own. Some collect only pieces with a nautical theme; some prefer wildlife; some collect specific animals; some favor the style of a single artist and only collect their work; and while some only want traditional black and white pieces others prefer color. The very finest collections, however, include a wide range of styles, subjects and artists. There are some subjects, however, that are just too unusual and collector interest and marketability are very limited for such pieces. When collecting, a buyer often considers the balance a piece has between its creativity and public appeal, especially if the work is acquired as an investment with a later resale in mind.
Last, a collector will judge a piece as a whole when contemplating an addition to their collection. Collectors examine, overall, the unique characteristics of a piece, its content, basing and the artistic competence of the artist. Top collections feature the creations of many reputable scrimshanders and different techniques. Some private collections, like the one started by President John F. Kennedy, are so remarkable that they have even become the envy of museums.
The criteria given here guide the serious collector and should be considered by anyone before laying out the cash, or not, for a work of significant art.
A final word on collectors and the art of scrimshaw
While collectors do appreciate the potential investment value of scrimshaw, that is not usually their primary reason for acquiring it. The handcrafting of srimshaw is part of our American heritage and each unique piece represents heirloom art passed down from generation to generation. It links us to our past and our rise from cave art to modern masterpieces. It also connects us to the extinct creatures that our ancestors once lived alongside.
Scrimshaw has the combined allure of history, fine art, and heritage. Maybe all of this is what collectors feel when they look at modern scrimshaw. No other art form in America has a longer history. No other expression of art has such significance or influence on the American spirit.