Q: What can you tell me about a treasure I’ve had for a while? It’s a carved elephant tusk about 26 inches long. It was made for Kate Smith.
A: For readers unfamiliar with the name, singer Kate Smith (1907-1986) was once called “America’s Songbird.” A contralto best known for her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” she was widely popular from appearances on radio and early TV. Born in Virginia, Smith died in North Carolina.
Our reader’s treasure is a sculpted tusk featuring a parade of eight elephants graduated in size. Carved from a curved tusk, they march in line toward a carved crocodile with open mouth.
According to the reader’s note, the tusk came to her via the singer’s father, who gave it to a gentleman who later gave it to his niece. She in turn gave it to the reader. The inscription inside the croc’s mouth reads: “For Kate Smith, New York, N.Y.”
At one point, carved tusks of differing kinds were considered desirable decor. Specific ones still are. Around the turn of the 20th century, having an item of carved ivory carried cachet and hinted that one appreciated the finer things that travel afforded. Owning ivory implied that one was sophisticated and/or had traveled. Many Asian and African tusks were carved in China.
Thinking creatively, let’s assume that the tusk was presented to Smith as a gift. A prestige item, if you will.
But looking back, we now see through auction results that many similar carved tusks were produced then and are still around. Like this tusk, most have passed through several owners. And many come up at auction.
I invite our reader to look at sale results for carved tusks on www.liveauctioneers.com and www.worthpoint.com . Note that many are similar in size and theme. Quite a few carvings involve graduated sizes of elephants marching into a croc’s mouth; apparently this was a popular theme.
We found similar carvings that sold for $100 to $2,500. What differentiated the big sellers from the rest was quality of carving and overall aesthetic appeal. The number of elephants shown also mattered. As an example, the $100 tusk is the same length as the reader’s, with four non-graduated elephants headed into the mouth of a fish. The $2,500 tusk is 33 inches long with 15 finely carved and graduated figures. The curve of the tusk is a high arch, plus it’s mounted on an artistic stand fashioned of exotic woods.
Does the dedication to Kate Smith make a difference? Not much. Today’s buyer has only a remote association, if any, to the singer.
Q: Is my crystal dinner bell worth anything? It was given to me many years ago and is marked “West Germany.”
A: West Germany on the tag indicates that the bell was produced roughly 1948-1990. Germany was reunified after the latter date. We found several bells marked like the reader’s on eBay, posted from $1.99 to $35. None sold. Glass bells are collected, but buyers want old bells (late 1800s-1940s) from specific makers.