Months at sea left the crews on 19th and even 18th century whaling ships with lots of idle time on their hands. One way they filled that time was to carve intricate designs into walrus tusks and whale teeth.
These scrimshaw items became quite elaborate and have descended down through the years as highly prized artworks. While bans on ivory have largely diminished this artform, the value of these old pieces has, if anything, continued to appreciate. That, perhaps, is why two scrimshaw pieces that had been on display since 1989 in a locked case at the Salt Pond Visitor Center at Cape Cod National Seashore were recently stolen.
One of the pieces was a 22-inch-long piece of walrus tusk into which was engraved, "Ship. Wm. Thompson," and the other was a 3-and-a-half-inch long piece of walrus tusk carved into the shape of a walrus head.
The national seashore's curator has notified members of the scrimshaw collector community to enlist their help in recovering these national treasures, said Bob Grant, the seashore's chief ranger.
"These wonderful pieces of maritime art belong to the American people and we are cooperating with a number of law enforcement agencies to search for them," said seashore Superintendent George Price. "It is unfortunate that, for now, these scrimshaw pieces will not be available for viewing, although numerous other scrimshaw items remain on display."
Seashore officials could not be reached Friday to say when the theft occurred, whether the case had been physically broken into, or whether the key had been used to unlock it.
Anyone with information concerning the theft is asked to contact the chief ranger at 508-957-0735.