There are many factors that have contributed to the advent of synthetic materials that have the color and texture of ivory. At the top of the list is the removal of elephant ivory from the market. Long before the ban on elephant ivory, large manufacturers of pianos and billiard balls found it impossible to purchase enough ivory to keep up with the demand for their products. These companies were the first to drive a search for alternate products.
Artists also found it increasingly difficult and expensive to find ivory and looked for other materials for their creations. Most turned to mammoth ivory, Tagua nut, bone, and hippo ivory. At the same time, the need for low-cost souvenirs spawned the wholesale production of plastic items originally sold to tourists which have since found their way into antique shops and online auctions pretending to be ivory.
Below is a sample of a Chinese Snuff Bottle that was represented and sold as being genuine ivory. The bottle is actually made from a synthetic ivory substance that is a form of poly-resin. This material is frequently used as a substitute for ivory when making pool cues, but it is also used to make fake ivory items sold to unsuspecting tourists and collectors.
On first inspection, the bottle appears to be made from ivory. The grain pattern is easily seen on the back of the piece usually attracting the attention of a potential buyer, thus the love affair begins. Nicely carved, appears to be genuine ivory, and the price is a steal. The buyer assumes that the seller doesn't know how valuable the piece is. While we are on that subject, if you ever think that a dealer doesn't know what he/she has and you are in a brick and mortar store, you should definitely think again. You might get lucky at an estate sale, flea market, or yard sale but an antique dealer that has been in business for 20 plus years knows what they have.
You look closer and see that the overall coloration and patina indicates the bottle is an antique, making it that much more valuable. Now you are really excited and your judgment is beginning to be overtaken by emotion. You really want this piece in your collection. You are running numbers through your head on how much this piece is really worth and what an amazing bargain you are about to get.
Next, you turn it upside down to look at the bottom expecting to see the signature of the artist and a beautiful set of Schreger lines. Instead you see this:
It is time to put the piece down, smile at the store owner, and find somewhere else to shop.
Here is an example of the most commonly misrepresented snuff bottle in the world. This particular bottle was sold at auction through Ebay's live auctions. We sent them an email letting them know the bottle was plastic along with instructions on how to confirm it, but they sold it anyway as ivory. Here are the pictures and the description from their auction.
Here is the actual description from their online auction:
CARVED IVORY SNUFF BOTTLE Carved ivory snuff bottle, landscape scene front and back, oval metal cap bottom, ivory stopper. Marked: Calligraphic mark on metal bottom. size: 2 3/4''H, 1 5/8''W, 3/4''D. Condition: age appropriate wear.
This Item will only be shipped domestically
Apply an ounce of logic and it is clear that this bottle couldn't possibly be ivory...
Brass is hard and does not bend or stretch
Ivory is hard and does not bend or stretch
So how did they ever get the brass inside of the ivory. Ivory it extremely hard, why would they need or want brass on the inside even if it was possible. That would only devalue the bottle. This style of bottle was produced by the thousands from the 1960's on in China to sell to tourists for about a dollar each as souvenirs. At any given time, you can find at least a handful of them for sale on the internet. The funniest part is that they come is assorted colors including green and blue and are still sold as ivory. The original full boxed set includes four bottles in white, red, blue, and green. I have only ever seen one complete set still intact with the box. (that set would probably be worth something today)
If you have followed the process this far and you are pretty certain that the item is made from some type of plastic or man-made material, the last and confirming test is the pin test.
Holding a pin with something to insulate your hand from heat, such as a pair of pliars. Place it above a flame for a few moments until it glows red hot at the very tip. Press the tip against a part of the piece you are testing that is generally hidden from view such as the bottom. You only need to hold it there for a few seconds. If it is made of plastic, the pin will melt the surface leaving an indentation.
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