A Massachusetts antique dealer has been indicted by the Justice Department for illegally importing sperm whale teeth. (We didn’t know this was a hot black market commodity, but then again, there’s a collector’s market for just about everything. Apparently the hot sperm whale teeth spots in the U.S are Nantucket, California, and Hawaii, with some dealers on Long Island.) David Place of Nantucket conspired with dealers in the Ukraine to import the teeth, which have sold in recent years for up to $300,000.
Sperm whales are an endangered species, and therefore protected by the Endangered Species Act. That doesn’t mean you can’t import them — you just need to get the right permits (Thanks, regulators!).
Handiwork made from whale teeth is known as scrimshaw, and was pioneered by nineteenth century whalers who carved designs into them in their spare time.
Much of this whale contraband comes from the Ukraine, where whaling is legal. It’s unclear whether whales are being killed for their teeth.
According to people in the tightly-knit community of antique scrimshaw dealers, the feds have been cracking down on illegal imports over the past two years. Last year, a former director of a whaling museum in Maui was arrested for buying and importing whale teeth. So was a Ukranian-born scrimshaw artist from Nantucket, whose designs had been commissioned by both Bush presidents.
In those cases, people who took receipt of illegal sperm whale teeth had them confiscated — though we can pretty much bet that the Bushes aren’t in that group.