Update: The 19th century narwhal tusk sold for 200,000 HKD, or $25,580.
What you see: A 19th century narwhal tusk, measuring 84 1/4 inches, or just over seven feet tall. Sotheby’s estimates it at 200,000 to 300,000 in Hong Kong Dollars (HKD), which is $25,580 to $38,370. It’s one of three lots of narwhal tusks in a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale coming up on April 2, 2018.
What’s a narwhal? It’s a medium-sized whale that lives in the Arctic waters off of Canada, Russia, and Greenland. The males of the species grow a tusk–an elongated left canine tooth–that they use to hunt by whacking and stunning fish that they wish to eat. The tusks can measure almost nine feet long. Weirdly, narwhals don’t have teeth inside their mouths, just the tusk, which grows through the upper lip.
How were narwhal tusks collected in the 19th century? Did whalers bring them home? “The Inuit used pretty much every part of the narwhal, from the meat to the horn, to make tools,” says Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and the International Head and Chairman of the Chinese Works of Art department. “Later, the horns were worth more in barter with European traders. The Inuit would trade them for iron tools, which worked better than tools made from bone. There are stories of narwhal tusks washing up on beaches, but if they did [the tusks in the sale], I don’t know how they look so nice.”
How did Europeans use narwhal tusks? “For the longest time, narwhal tusks were thought to be the horns of unicorns,” he says. “In the 17th century, they were popular in kunstkammers–cabinets of curiosities. They were among the most highly regarded objects that you could have. Queen Elizabeth I spent £10,000 to buy one at a time when £10,000 could buy a castle. It was presented to her mounted with jewels.”
Are narwhal tusks considered to be ivory? “No. They have the appearance of ivory, but it’s not the same substance,” he says. “It’s the tooth of the narwhal. It’s like elephant ivory, but it’s from a different animal, so it’s different material. The narwhal is a protected species, so you need a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) license to sell narwhal tusks, and you can’t trade in new narwhal tusks.”
Why do narwhal tusks appear so rarely at auction? “They need to be ancient, as is the case with the ones we have here,” he says.
Are narwhal tusks solid or hollow? “They’re solid, like ivory,” he says. “They’re very dense and quite heavy.”
How much does this one weigh? Is it heavier than a pool cue? “We don’t have the weight on it, but it’s very dense material. I’d say it’s heavier than a pool cue.”
The pictured lot is one of three lots in the auction that feature 19th century narwhal tusks. Is it rare to have this many tusks in a single sale? And do they all come from the same consigner? “It’s quite unusual to have so many in one auction. This will be the first time we’ve offered narwhal tusks in Asia,” he says, adding that all four tusks come from the same owner.
Why does lot 3044 have a higher estimate than the other lots featuring narwhal tusks? “There’s a certain level of subjectivity here, but we find it a particularly good example,” he says, citing “the depth of the grooves, the caramel-colored patina, and the very nice luster” of the tusk.
What’s the auction record for a narwhal tusk at auction? It seems to have been set at Sotheby’s Paris in November 2011 by a pair of tusks from the late 17th or early 18th centuries that commanded €108,750 ($144,418) on an estimate of €40,000 to €60,000 ($53,119 to $79,679). They were mounted on Italian gilt-bronze stands. “I’m not sure how much [of the record] was the stand and how much was the narwhal tusk,” he says. “But narwhal tusks are always very popular. Few objects are as rich with mythology and so visually astounding. They’re always a hit.”
You said earlier that the auction will mark the first time narwhal tusks have been offered at an auction in Asia. How will they appeal to Asian bidders? “They’re so beautiful, and because they’re so big, they can make a big space seem even bigger,” he says. “Narwhal tusks are very open-ended objects. Very few people are left unimpressed by these things. I think we’ll see a bit of a fight for some of these items. I’m quite confident.”
The pictured tusk stands just over seven feet tall. What is it like to see it in person? “It’s a very mysterious object,” Chow says. “Most people looking at it for the first time don’t think it’s a narwhal tusk. Most think, ‘What is this thing?’ It’s incredibly tall and obviously ancient, with a rich, smooth surface. They can’t figure out what they are. They figure out it’s not man-made, and it looks like a unicorn horn, but it can’t be. They can’t wrap their heads around them. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and a great conversation piece.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.
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