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Do you have any antique tortoiseshell lurking around?

PUBLISHED: 12:37 12 May 2019 | UPDATED: 12:37 12 May 2019

Antique items made from Tortoiseshell; its future under threat. Picture: Contributed

Antique items made from Tortoiseshell; its future under threat. Picture: Contributed

Archant

I do not think I have ever eaten real turtle soup - now, having read how tortoiseshell is harvested, I do not wish to be associated with the edible side of this marine creature.

Tortoiseshell comes from the Marine Turtle. The two required species are the Caret or the Hawksbill. Describing just 
how the meat is stripped from the shell (carapace) I will leave to somebody writing on another occasion - save to say I am glad turtles and their tortoiseshell are now a protected species. International legislation to protect has had an effect on the value of antique and extant tortoiseshell to the effect that genuine tortoiseshell has risen in value probably three to fourfold in the last ten years. (Strangely, the protection of fur has had quite the opposite effect with a dramatic decline in the wearing of old furs and the purchasing of new, legitimate pelts.) I think you would be quite surprised how hard it is to find genuine old tortoiseshell on the market today.

The use of tortoiseshell as a veneer to decorate furniture, mirrors and boxes has actually been around from the 17th century. A certain Andre Charles Boulle is credited with initiating the use of stained red and green tortoiseshell within French furniture and using it as a background to ornate brasswork during the 17th and early 18th centuries. No wood alone can give such a striking effect.

When tortoiseshell is heated in water it becomes very soft and malleable, virtually plastic (a phonetic material). It can be moulded and even joined. 18th century craftsmen stretched and pressed it into shape over boxes and cabinets with great effect. Most tortoiseshell used as a veneer has to be laid over wooden backing or formers. Otherwise, it is limited to small manufactured items such as hair combs and brooches which need no support.

By the 1890s a new tortoiseshell was born; a product that can appear as decorative as the real thing and seemingly strong enough, even when thin, to stand on its own. Hundreds of thousands of products, boxes, mirrors, dressing table sets, ring trees and trays were produced from this new substance - plastic - similar to celluloid and sometimes quite difficult to tell from real shell. However, when differentiating between real and plastic tortoiseshell, bear in mind the genuine article needs to be supported.

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For cleaning real shell, use nothing too abrasive, silver polish is perfectly safe. Apply with soft cloth and buff with a clean duster. To bring instant revival to real tortoiseshell with a dull or milky surface, first clean with metal polish and apply a thin coat of olive oil. This simple remedy has remarkable results.

Prices are as different as chalk and cheese for the two products. Imitation tortoiseshell can be bought for a just a few pounds, whereas the genuine shell can be hundreds of pounds upwards.

A good test to define fake or genuine tortoiseshell is to apply a small section of the article to something like a radiant hot plate. If it is genuine there will be little or no reaction from the article applied to the heat. If it is fake, you will probably end up with a very sticky cooker plate where it has melted rapidly. (Safety note: Allow the ring to heat and then turn the cooker off before commencing the experiment)

Probably the best course of action is to seek expert advice - it is less messy and saves having to clean the cooker!

Recent legislation referring to protected species is still unclear if we can legally sell items with a tortoiseshell element; things 
such as 'boulle' decorated furniture is still uncertain 
if we are able to do so, it would render them virtually unsaleable.

If items that are genuinely antique and have considerable age, say over 100 years, the guide-lines would become clearer. We await the definitive legalities which we hope will be published this year.

Mike Hicks has run Stalham Antique Gallery at 29 High Street, Stalham (NR12 9AH) for more than 30 years. His business is open Mondays to Fridays from 9am-1pm and 2-4.30pm, and on Saturdays from 9am-1pm. 
You can contact Mike on 01692 580636 or info@mikehicksantiques.co.uk or 
www.mikehicksantiques.co.uk

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