Story: Allison Cook |
Made from the tusks of elephants, ivory is a precious commodity, and since selling ivory in the United States was outlawed in the 1960s in response to diminished elephant herds worldwide, antique ivory is very valuable. While the first crafts of ivory date back 3,000 years to the time of the Egyptians, ivory carvings became extremely popular as signs of wealth and prestige during the Renaissance period in Europe, and European influence spread to the United States in the 19th century due to the emerging middle class.
Today, antique ivory artworks are highly collectible and are a testament to craftsmanship and attention to detail. Davis Tillman, owner of Tillman’s Antiques & Collectables in Hot Springs, offers a wide selection of certified antique carved ivory. “I personally have always loved art miniatures, and will only handle authentically antique ivory pieces,” he says. Several samplings from his collection include a female figure in the classic European style circa the 1890s and a little boy, titled Learning To Count, which is also from the turn of the century. Both pieces are elephant ivory and display highly refined carvings. Tillman acquired the female figure from a Washington D.C. collection, while the little boy came from an antique dealer who personally called Tillman about the find. An ivory carved dog, originally from China, was also part of the same D.C. collection as the female figure, and boasts a true-to-life facial expression any dog owner can recognize.
One of Tillman’s most awe-inspiring finds is a hand-carved and tea-stained man and woman—a sultan and his bride. From the Ottoman Empire around 1800, this pair was a gift to the sultan upon his marriage, and the two figures are carved from the same tusk, which was split length-wise before carving began.
The bride holds flowers over her body and has a bird perched on her finger—both symbols of nature—while the sultan, outfitted with his regal sword, is admiring a flower in his hand—also a symbol of nature and therefore of his bride. This pair boasts almost impossible detail, right down to the sultan’s beard and the bride’s adorned dress, and it likely would have taken the artist weeks of continuous work to complete these pieces. “The sultan and his bride was brought to me by a man who had been working in Persia, and he purchased them from a family’s estate who had owned them since the 1940s,” Tillman says. “The tea staining, which was common, really brings out the depth and detail of the work.”
Tillman cautions buyers about the difference between bone and ivory carvings since an untrained eye can easily mistake them. “Bone carvings have becoming popular since the ban on ivory; however, if you look closely, true ivory has a criss-cross or diamond pattern, while bone has straight lines,” he says. “This is because a tusk grows from all sides and overlaps to form the cone shape, while bone always grows in a linear formation.” Some other pieces may be labeled ivory, but actual only contain ivory shavings mixed with rosin. This is why Tillman suggests working with a reputable dealer. “Dealing in ivory can be tricky, and you should always know the history of your seller so you know exactly what you are buying,” he says.