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Nuguruk: Eskimo Ivory?

        Nuguruk: Eskimo Ivory?

  • Ivory items with the signature “Nuguruk” are fairly common; carving sets, ashtrays, cheese slicers….
  • Are these genuine Eskimo scrimshaw?

In reality, “Nuguruk” was not an eskimo scrimshaw artist, but a Seattle company of the 1960’s and even earlier, which obtained cutlery blades and fittings, often from Germany or England, and then hired local people to produce scrimshaw ivory handles. Their products are indeed real ivory (sometimes marine ivory, but more often imported elephant ivory) and are scrimshawed by hand.  However, because the scrimshaw was produced from patterns supplied by the company, they are not original works of art, and all or most of the artists were non-native. They copied templates which they were given by the company, and as a result there are only a few stock patterns: seal on ice floe, dog sled, cabin, and a dozen or so others. All the items were signed Nuguruk, regardless of the name of the factory worker who applied the designs.  Even though some of the factory workers may have been native, genuine native art is not mass-produced using company supplied templates, or signed with a name which is not that of the maker.

As a result, the value of these items is a fraction of that of real eskimo art (perhaps $25 for a carving set, $15 for a cheese slicer).

More information as to the origin of these items is found in “The Lure of Alaska,” a 2007 publication of the Alaska State Museum:

According to this publication, the Herman Krupp Co. of Seattle had been marketing “Alaskan” souvenirs since the 1910’s, and the James L. Houston company, a well-known Seattle jewelry-seller, employed a long-time Krupp employee, Karl Lemke, to mechanically etch fake eskimo items and sign them with the generic eskimo-sounding name Nuguruk or Nunuk.   See p. 25 of the article, which can be found by googling the title or searching publications of the Alaska State Museum.

Also see  Dorothy Jean Ray in her book A Legacy of Arctic Art, page 148, “I saw names like “Nunuk” and “Nuguruk” inscribed on pieces at a time when most ivory art was anonymous; few Eskimos in the Nome vicinity signed their work, and if they did, they used a binomial….. I later learned that these objects were made in Seattle, usually mass-produced from a master copy by non-Eskimos in several manufacturing firms. Typical northern subjects were engraved on ivory pieces, usually elephant ivory, with a tag “genuine ivory”, which were then sent to Alaska, where customers mistakenly thought they were buying Eskimo-made objects of walrus ivory,”

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An internet search will easily verify this, and may lead to a number of sites showing examples of common “Nuguruk” items.

Disclaimer: Guides are submitted by readers and the views expressed belong solely to the author.

Bluemando
Bluemando
Steve has been collecting and researching Northwest Coast Native art for 25 years. He is known for his expertise regarding the Tsimshian carvers of Metlakatla, Alaska, and the Kwakiutl carvers of the Blunden Harbor/Smith Inlet area. He has contributed to a museum exhibit on model totem poles, and to the book "Carvings and Commerce" based on it.
By day he is a paralegal, and by night a professional musician, playing violin, mandolin and octave mandolin in the Americeltic tradition.