The 18th C. tall ivory netsuke of a Chinese court noble sold for $86,500 recently at Bonham’s New York.


Q: I want to find out how much a walrus tusk scrimshawed by (name omitted) is worth. The tusk is 19 inches long.

A: We’ve omitted the artisan’s name because the piece seen in images sent is recent. As such, its appeal is to a very narrow segment of buyers. More on that later.

Operating as The Great Arnet, the mind reader, I intuit that this reader thinks if his tusk is scrimshaw, it must be valuable. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Scrimshaw in its purest form is a nautical art form that evokes the smell of salt air and the era of great schooners and vessels from the golden age of Yankee whalers. Crews on the ships carved varied types of art, often nautical, onto byproducts such as whalebones and teeth. From Arctic waters came whale tusks; India brought elephant tusks.

The finest and most valuable scrimshaw, as those carvings on ivory or bone are called, were done by early to mid-19th century seafarers. Some are aesthetic pleasures and true works of maritime art.

Today, new generations of carvers interpret the craft of scrimshaw in their way, using salvaged or gathered bone or ivory. Others simply copy old themes. You’ll find their products on the Internet. By contrast, visit, the site of the New Bedford Whaling Museum where the world’s best and largest collection of scrimshaw is housed.

We cannot comment on the reader’s tusk other than that it is not old. It is a decorative piece. An expert needs to handle the tusk to determine composition. Nor is the art remarkable. The animals carved on the surface are awkward repeats of old themes.

Value is whatever someone is willing to pay. The artist has no track record of sales at auction.

Scrimshaw is not a collecting category for the novice. Fakes and shams abound, starting with resin “tusks.” Buy and sell only from a dealer you trust.

Q: Our large painting on canvas was acquired in the Far East decades ago. It’s signed W. Barwa with “Bali” under the name. It is similar to one by the same painter, but is larger and less brilliant. Value?

A: Donning my mind reader’s turban again, I think this reader has researched and found, perhaps on, the 2006 auction sale of a similar painting. Smaller by inches than the reader’s, it was billed as a 1930s Indonesian oil painting signed by Barwa. And it brought $1,200 at a Florida auction gallery. Checking databases, we found no other record of a Barwa sale.

If you’re serious about selling, send crisp images of front and back to a variety of auction houses that sell ethnic decorative arts. See what they say.

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. SendEmail Danielle Arnet at