Treasures: International Prohibition of Selling Ivory May Affect Triptych’s Value

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I inherited this triptych from my aunt about 12 years ago. It was originally a gift to my aunt from a very old friend from Switzerland. I tried to investigate it a little and found some similar pieces from the British Museum. Would you please help me gather more information on the value and how I might proceed to sell it?

Thank you,

M. M.

Dear M. M.:

Doing research on the Internet can really lead you astray. One of the images M. M. sent us was of the Borradaile Triptych, which is Byzantine and was made between 900 and 1000 AD, and while it is vaguely similar to the one in today’s question, the Borradaile Triptych is much older and more artistically executed.

There are so many questions surrounding pieces similar to the one belonging to M. M. For example, is it real ivory? Many of these were made for tourist consumption and carved simplistically from bone or even pressed out from ivory-colored plastic. We believe the triptych in today’s question was carved from real ivory.

Thanks to the excellent pictures, we see that each of the three panels has a slight curve to it, signifying that it had once been part of an elephant’s cylindrical tusk. We also think we see the distinctive elephant ivory grain pattern in the closed panels, which does reassure us quite a bit.

We also like that we can see where the small latch has been opened hundreds (maybe thousands of times) and left a small semicircle on one of the eaves of the panel. This kind of wear shows use and age, and we can only imagine how many times the owners have opened and closed this object for their private devotionals.

Triptychs come in a variety of forms. Some are simply little spheres that open up to reveal a simple religious scene. Still others can be in the form of a lady such as Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, the Virgin Mary, Marie de Medici and Joan of Arc. Male figures take the form of bishops. Napoleon and Philippe II also can be found.

Once the three panels are opened, a religious scene is usually revealed, but political scenes are also found. The example in today’s question shows Calvary with Christ crucified on the cross with Longinus holding the lance that pierced Christ’s side. There also appears to be a little winged devil with horns.

We believe this piece is continental European in origin and was probably made during the 18th or perhaps the early 19th century. But an in-person examination is needed to make sure the piece is what it appears to be – really made from ivory and not bone, and that it is really as old as it appears to be in the photographs, because photographs can be very deceiving.

As for the value, since M. M. wants to sell it, we will quote auctions’ values that usually range from around $900 to $1,500 for pieces of this sort. However, we did find pieces that were a bit higher and a bit lower. The place to sell is at a good, reputable auction house, but M. M. should keep in mind that international prohibition against selling elephant ivory may impact this piece negatively.