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Discerning ivory from plastic requires inspection

With the worldwide ban on ivory, it is absolutely essential one can decipher ivory from plastic when it comes to antiques and collectibles. In the latest Ask the Experts column, Dr. G. Marchelos offers a clear caution of closely examining items and seeking documentation, as he fields a reader's inquiry about determining if an item is made of ivory or plastic.

QI am trying to find out the market value of a pair of ivory carvings left to me by my aunt who purchased them overseas in 1961; they are detailed Emperor & Empress sitting on thrones, placed on custom, form-fitted rosewood bases.

The Emperor without stand is 4 pounds 14.8 ounces and stands 12 inches tall by 5 inches wide by 4 3/4 inches deep. The Empress without stand is 4 pounds 12.6 ounces and stands 12 1/4 inches tall by 5 inches wide by 4 3/4 inches deep. There are still 1961 price details on the bottom: 1012/183.00 each.


These were displayed in a built-in cabinet which protected them from dust, but they do have some nicotine on them, which seems to wipe off of the outer sides. I do not know what (or if) to try to clean the deep carvings.

I appreciate your help with this and continue to enjoy Antique Trader. Thank you.

— K.S., Atlanta, Georgia

A These carvings of an emperor and empress are approximately 12 inches tall sitting on fitted bases. They were purchased in 1961 and still have a price tag on the bottom. Ivory is difficult to sell because of the worldwide ban on its sale put in place to protect the dwindling numbers of elephants and other ivory-bearing animals which are widely poached. If it is sold it must accompany documentation that it is older than the 1972 original ban. It is not possible to tell from the photos sent that these items are ivory. The sheen and light reflection point to high impact plastic, which is widely used today in lieu of ivory; this has been the case for a very long time.

The “nicotine” is probably an imitation tea stain. Tea stain ivory has been practiced in Asia for a long time. In this case this might have been applied to conceal the plastic underneath. Proof of these being ivory includes many tests using pins, etc. By looking inside the material of the body for the herring bone pattern of the matrix which makes up elephant ivory, one can rule in or out the fact that these items are ivory and not plastic. This, however, is not possible with the information furnished. Each would have to examined under strong light, but I suspect from what is shown that these are indeed plastic and not ivory. Value would be determined by the outcome so these should be taken to a competent person who knows something about ivory and be examined in the flesh. Either way they have value, but if proven to be ivory, caution should considered if a sale is contemplated.


QI came across your website in search of an answer. When I saw this item, I fell in love with it and bought it. I was told it was 1800s, but wanted to have a second opinion. It says “Ice Water” and appears to be made of tin. It measures approximately 1 1/2 feet tall.


If you can, please let me know the origin, value and any other details you may know. Thank you for your time.
— C.C.

A Based upon the design in the photo sent, the container was probably made in Germany before World War I. It could also come from parts of France along the Rhine River. The design is identical to enamel ware items from the late 1800s and into the early 20th century. It has seen rough use, so it is in average used condition. All the parts are there but we do not know if the spout works.

These were widely exported to the United States before WWI, and even after, and could have come from a diner or restaurant. As it is, the right collector who is interested in these and related items would pay $150.

About our columnist:
Dr. G. Marchelos is an honors graduate and certified appraiser of the Asheford Institute of Antiques. Additionally, Dr. Marchelos has a PhD in history, is a professor of antiquities at the University of Alabama, and is a nationally recognized appraiser working for both private and public institutions across North America. Dr. Marchelos is also a well established antiques dealer, operating both in the U.S. and Europe.

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