It came from your clutter: Elephant tusks

The first installment of our new “It came from your clutter” feature is a pretty good one — and a little creepy, scary, too. (Happy Halloween!) It comes from a reader who found himself dealing with an illegal item that his uncle had packed away for years. The contraband in question was a pair of elephant tusks. The ivory trade ban started in 1989, so I’m assuming the reader’s uncle was in receipt of the tusks prior to 1989. From the reader’s email:

I live in the US but have an uncle in Canada; he was recently moved into a nursing home and I had to clean out his apartment. Among his things were two elephant tusks. In doing my research, I discovered that I could neither bring them back with me into the US or sell them in Canada. What to do?? I ended up calling the Natural History division of the Royal Ontario Museum, and they will be acquiring the tusks for their collection. Now my uncle is happy they will not be carved up for cheap trinkets.

Calling the museum was definitely a great idea. Let’s hope that the uncle’s tusks will find a home for a long time in the Royal Ontario Museum.

For those of you who come across a rather odd item while clearing out a basement, attic, or garage, drop us an email. Also, try and take a photo or two if possible.

20 Comments for “It came from your clutter: Elephant tusks”

  1. posted by DaveW on

    I can’t imagine the clutter in a large museum collection (of which a small fraction is ever on display). Will these tusks ever be displayed, or just stored in a bin for eternity?

    How do museums deal with items like this, and what are their clutter issues like?

  2. posted by MissPrism on

    Museums use most of their stock for teaching and research – only a tiny proportion of most museums’ specimens are actually on display. So the tusks might be sampled and measured by researchers, or taken round schools to show to children.
    I got rid of a preserved bird-eating spider once by giving it to the Royal Museum of Scotland, and they seemed delighted to have it – but I’ve never noticed it on display!

  3. posted by Mikey on

    I bought my first house in a foreclosure auction, in 1986 during the last mortagage/bank crisis! 🙂

    When I was cleaning out the garage, I found five bottles of DDT. No one would take it. I had to take it to downtown LA and give it to the Toxic Substances people. BTW, it’s illegal to transport that stuff by car. Good times.

  4. posted by Marilyn Bohn on

    Wow, how interesting–the tusks and the DDT. I have never come across anything like this in organizing so I was glad for the heads up. It is something to be aware of and I appreciate the informatiive comments.

  5. posted by Not telling on

    My FIL died recently and, while cleaning out some boxes that hadn’t been opened in the 30+ years of their marriage, his wife found a human skull. She’d known that he had it for years (a souvenir of the Korean War—gross!), but hadn’t known where he’d put it. Now she has to contact the Korean embassy about returning it to them.

  6. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    Wow. That’s pretty crazy. Kind of makes me think of the Goonies and how they found the secret treasure map. 🙂

  7. posted by Another Deb on

    You never know what a museum might need items for. With the recent upswing in genetic technology, some grad student might need samples for a thesis. Or, a material might surface that sheds light on a solution for an endangered species.

    I know they have been studying populations of whooping cranes using feathers people had once used on hats and from stuffed mounts around the world. Since all of the cranes alive now came from a population of only 14 birds, there were concerns that the gene pool was too small for a healthy future. They are trying to prevent inbreeding problems with some DNA outside the pool.

  8. posted by ferris209 on

    Dang shame, I would have had the tusks carved into guitar nuts and saddles and mailed’em on home, but I guess I’m a law breaker.

  9. posted by delphine on

    I would not even know what to do if I came across some elephant tusks. When we were cleaning out my grandparents house my aunt unexpectedly found a gun buried in a closet. Nobody had any idea that my grandfather had it. If I recall correctly it was a bit old as well as being unlocked and loaded. Luckily, my uncle who is a police officer was there as the rest of us have no clue about guns.

  10. posted by martha in mobile on

    When cleaning out my FIL’s accumulated stash, I came across a bound book of San Francisco newspaper front pages dating from the early 1900’s. His uncle had stolen it in the 1950’s from the library after getting lubed at his favorite bar. Yikes! I shipped it back to the SF library faster than you can say “bad karma for harboring stolen items”. Thank goodness they didn’t charge me overdue fees…

  11. posted by JuneBug on

    My grandpa was a licensed powderman and had taught some state courses in explosive safety. He even got a phone call during the first Iraq war to see if he wanted to go over and help put out the oil rig fires. He declined with the excuse that at 71 he wasn’t really interested in traveling that much and had put in his time in WWII. When he died in 2005, we knew that he had some blasting materials but were not quite sure where. We eventually found his boxes of caps etc. in a dry room in the basement. The local police called in the Army bomb people from the base about 150 miles away to dispose of it since it was so old. Family rumor has it that he also had buried some dynamite in some kind of home-dug bunker on his heavily wooded 38 acres, rather than store it in the house. We haven’t yet been able to locate that.

  12. posted by goodywitch on

    Reminds me of this story:

    I actually have some ivory bangles (my great-grandmother’s, I think). Funny thing is that it looks exactly like the cheap plastic ones I have.

  13. posted by Gena on

    Oh, this post brings up memories. When my father died suddenly thirteen years ago, he left a “mostly” finished airplane of his own design in his shop under the house. Wings, engine, hand-carved propeller, rough pilot’s cabin, the whole nine yards. Because he’d designed it but died before flying it, no one else was willing to risk flying it either. The local Experimental Aircraft Association was thrilled to get it. Dad was a mechanical wizard and they’d never seen anything like this.

  14. posted by Kate on

    My grandparents have all sorts of weird stuff in their basement right now, including:

    – A set of really ugly Japanese figurines which are apparently valuable

    – Every single catalogue my grandfather’s favourite tool store has ever released, from their founding 35 years ago to present day

    – An apparently large collection of vintage mail-order porn from the early days of video (he actually told me aunt about this because he did not want us to be shocked when we one day find it)

  15. posted by CC on

    As a museum professional I would first like to say “Thank you” for thinking of a museum. If anyone else would like to know some of the cans and can’ts when it comes to plants and animals is a great place to start.

    Most museums only have 10% of our collection on exhibit at any given time. Some items are collected without the expectation of ever being displayed. Other items are back up, unique to the area and/or have unique cultural significance and deserve to be saved.

    I am a packrat and as a museum curator I get paid to save stuff. This is not always a good combination. But I’m getting better in real life and at work. Right now we’re doing an inventory and collection purge. It’s kinda painful, but we really didn’t need 16 boxes of athlete’s foot powder from the 1930s.

    As people are cleaning and clearing items that they accumulated or others acquired please think of your local history museum. Do you have old yearbooks, phonebooks, and scrapbooks from local clubs and organizations? Do you have old photos from school or other community events or local businesses? Do you have those old photo Christmas cards showing everyone in the office your local insurance agent sent out for the last fifty years? I would be interested in all of those. Do you have a collection of 200 Santa figurines from around the world? I don’t want them but I will help you find them a home.

    Museums, large and small, can be an amazing resource for people. Please don’t overlook us.

  16. posted by Shalin on

    nice story! I predict this will be a new favorite feature of mine on this blog 🙂

  17. posted by Chris on

    While this may not be as odd as elephant tusks, people who inherit furs that are not in wearable condition (not stored properly–usually the case) can donate them to an animal shelter, the Humane Society, or wild life rehabilitators who use them to make comforting nests or beds for orphan baby animals.

  18. posted by looking on

    My uncle, Mississippi-born, had a machete in his sock drawer, with so many socks on top we’d never seen it before. Along with his (safely stored) guns, he was ready to defend his family.

  19. posted by Melanie on

    My grandparents had a drugstore that had been in the family for about 100 years prior to its closing. We found some bizarre items of questionable medicinal value from the store’s early years. Many are now on display as a mini museum of sorts in a jewelry case (also from the store)in my sister’s living room. My collection is in a box waiting for a flash of decorating brillaince on my part. My mother had her drugstore glassware (beakers, graduated cylanders, etc.) scattered across her kitchen counter for a week awaiting a permanent home until we suggested she clean up her “meth lab” before company came over.

    My favorite odd item was a pen that disguised a tear gas “gun” my grandfather had kept hidden in the store just in case it was needed in the 1960s. We discovered it wasn’t a pen when some family members were playing around with it and a pellet plopped out in my grandmother’s living room- fortunately no longer actively dispensing tear gas!

  20. posted by MP on

    We found a case of shotgun shells and ammunition cleaning out an area of our garage one day. We had noticed this box when we moved in but never got around to clearing it out. 14 years later, lo and behold, it was a case of ammunition.
    Never having owned guns, or even used guns, we fine urban dwellers called the only people we knew who could tell us how to safely dispose of it. We spoke to the police and they came by to pick it up for us.

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