Buying / selling shark jaws or jaw, taxidermy, teeth

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This is a guide to buying and selling remains of modern sharks, including jaws, teeth and stuffed specimens. I personally am a shark researcher, and use modern jaws and teeth as comparative material; as I often have to get these specimens in bulk, I often sell off the surplus. Although I am a seller, and therefore by definition biased, I hope that this is as fair as I can make it. I have not here covered fossil shark teeth, as this is a rather different subject, but many of the comments about species and quality are still relevant.

Odd items to want to buy I admit, but shark (and ray) taxidermy related items are bought for a number of reasons: As curios or items of nautical or biological interest. These can vary from big, impressive specimens to be hung on the wall of a study or bar to small and interesting pieces which are fascinating, especially for children.

As teeth for decorative uses, especially jewellery.

As collectors items for serious shark researchers and collectors.

For all buyers and sellers, you must consider quality, size and species. Local or international legal and conservation issues should also be considered.

LEGAL AND CONSERVATION ISSUES. The vast majority of shark items for sale are the byproducts of normal commercial fishing, where sharks are either the target of food fisheries (such as with mako and small Indo-Pacific sharks), or the bycatch of tuna and billfish fisheries (as with species such as silky and blue sharks) that are already dead by the time they are brought onto the boat. The large value of some big jaws, such as those of tiger sharks, may add to the value of the catch, and so it is not always clear whether this has contributed to their capture. There are some sharks and rays that are endangered, and their value as ‘curios’ may make them targets. This is especially true of sawfishes (a type of ray), where the rostra (snouts) are valuable. Luckily, the majority of these for sale are from old collections, but it is worth checking if these are old and have a ‘patina of age’ on them before bidding. Recently, the Great White and Whale Sharks have been listed by CITES. This means that their remains (including modern teeth, but NOT fossil teeth) cannot be sold internationally without a licence. There are also local laws covering trade in some species. In some countries, ANY trade of great white remains is illegal. Other species have local restrictions on trade; the grey nurse/sandtiger shark is protected in places including Australia and South Africa, and sawfish rostra need a licence to be exported from Australia. Ebay has recently put a block on selling rostra of smalltooth sawfish from the USA due to their extreme rarety. If you are based in the US and want to sell sawfish, it can only be from one of the other species that can be proven to not be from the Gulf-Florida area.

Despite all of this, the vast majority of shark material for sale has no legal protection and is pure bycatch, often making a very important extra income for fishermen in poor areas such as the Philippines.

QUALITY. Unlike modern shells, where there is a well recognised system for indicating quality, it is not always easy to quantify the quality of shark jaws and teeth.

Shark teeth are removed from the gums and cleaned of flesh before being bleached. The quality of teeth depends on whether there is any damage, such as chips or serrations missing, whether the root is fully formed and whether there is staining of the root. Most teeth sold individually are perfect, but look out for teeth with a root that looks small or porous, as these are not fully formed. Look out for teeth sold with only generic photos; although you may get similar to the photos, you cannot be sure of this. If you are buying in bulk this is not usually a problem, but can be if you want specific teeth; look at advanced search by seller and see what they have sold recently, and if any of the photos look the same.

Shark jaws are removed from the head, cleaned of flesh and bleached before being dried and set to shape. The quality depends on the skill of preparation and any feeding or capture damage that has occurred to the teeth. Almost all jaws have some damaged teeth, usually a natural occurrence, but also caused by wire traces and bad handling. Some species, such as hammerheads, virtually always have damaged teeth due to their mode of feeding, and so these are not always a negative feature. Some also have recently shed teeth, leaving a gap in the dentition, but with replacement teeth behind. These are often sold as ‘teeth in rotation’. If jaws have been poorly dried, whole rows of teeth may rotate inwards. To avoid these, be wary of photos where you cannot clearly see teeth on both upper and lower jaws. The description of the jaws should mention whether there are any damaged teeth; if this is not mentioned be very wary and look carefully at the photos, as the teeth may be in a poor state. Many jaws also have preparation or capture damage, such as hook holes or knife marks. These should be mentioned if present, but in some cases a hook hole can make a jaw look more interesting. It is unusual for jaws to have badly trimmed flesh hanging off them, but this may occur. This is usually in jaws that are otherwise poorly prepared, and look distinctly brownish showing that they have not been bleached. These unbleached jaws may also be rather smelly, whereas the better prepared ones are usually virtually smell free (although a lot of them may have a faint fishy smell). If you are selling, give the best description you can; even if you do not know the details of the shark, this could give enough information for a collector to know if it is rare enough and worth putting a large bid on.

SIZE. With smaller, rarer shark species, the value is nearly the same whatever the size, but for others, size is everything; for example a small jaw of a 3 foot mako is worth as little as $20, one of a 12 foot giant over $400. The value of teeth is also size related; the value of some doubles every 1/8 inch.

Teeth are usually measured as slant height- from the tip to the opposite extreme of the root. This is rather larger than true height from base to tip, especially in low and wide teeth. Very wide teeth, such as of six gill sharks, are usually measured along their width. Jaws are usually measures across the widest points (usually the corner of the lower jaw). Be sure to check on the shape of the jaws; most shark jaws are slightly stretched outwards to make them a nicer shape, but this makes them wider. Some are very stretched, and are no longer in a natural shape at all. This is especially true of makos, where the jaw is naturally very narrow, and some are sold in natural shape, some very stretched out, to almost double their width. You can get a good idea of how stretched they are by looking at the lower anterior teeth- these should be parallel, if they are not there has been a lot of stretching.

SPECIES. A large proportion of shark jaws and teeth for sale are offered by sellers who specialise in them and in most cases the species identification can be relied on. Most buy jaws in mixed batches and identify then before selling on. Smaller numbers of jaws come with capture data and have identifications that can be completely relied on. If you are not sure before bidding, look to see what else the seller has sold other shark items recently, or if not, whether the description gives enough detail to be able to see their knowledge. In addition to these jaws, many are sold as either unidentified shark jaws, or are wrongly named. Most of the tiny 2-3inch jaws for sale are from coral catsharks, the bulk of larger unidentified jaws are spottail, silky, spinner or blacktip sharks, with bull and lemon shark jaws often turning up from Florida. These jaws are all similar and not easy to tell apart by a non expert, and many are sold either wrongly named (often as grey reef or blacktip reef shark) or just as reef sharks. Many of the groups of small sharks have many species with similar teeth, and in this case many sellers will either give the name of the commonest species, or just say to what group of sharks (e.g. bamboo sharks) they belong to. If you are buying one of these species, it is worth looking to see if the seller has identified this from the whole shark (rare) or whether they give reasons for the identification. If you are buying, be careful of misnamed specimens. These are several websites with good photos of jaws of differed shark species (such as elasmo.com). If you are selling, and not certain of the name, put up a couple of good photos, at least one of the whole jaw and a detailed one of the largest teeth; this will allow a collector to identify the jaw and see if it is valuable and rare or not.

Shark teeth are usually correctly identified, but there have recently been a lot of ganges shark teeth sold as oceanic white tip (which are rarely offered for sale). Note that a lot of shark teeth are sold as "white" (referring to their colour) in the hope that inexperienced buyers will think they are getting teeth from the Great White- not exactly a con but pretty close.

TAXIDERMY SPECIMENS. Taxidermy specimens are of two very different types. Many larger sharks are fibreglass or plastic casts, often of actual captures. Some of these have real jaws, others not. Some of these replicas are not cast from actual specimens and are often not very realistic. Other specimens, especially smaller sharks and rays, are real stuffed sharks or dried sharks, shark heads and rays. These vary a lot in quality, from very good mounts to mass produced tourist curios. Heads and small whole specimens are often dried, usually freeze dried, with larger specimens sometimes being resin impregnated. Details of teeth and scales are often very clear. Some stuffed specimens show great surface detail, whilst others have a thick coating of varnish. This protects the specimens but obscures the scales and other details; these are often poorer quality specimens with painted on eyes. Generally, for quality look for teeth that are clearly seen, undamaged fins and realistic eyes. Quality mounts will have a slight smell, but nothing unpleasant or intrusive.

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