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At the far end of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Bird Hall is an exhibit unlike any of the specimens on display, with a body of ivory and a complicated past. Perched on a polished oak burl with its wings raised as if ready to swoop in on its prey, the Ivory Eagle is a 550-pound replica of a sea eagle. Hundreds of individually crafted ivory feathers cover its 4-foot-long wingspan. Gretchen Anderson, conservator and head of the Section of Conservation at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, marvels as she leans in to admire the artistry. “It’s hard to believe that every single one of those feathers was carved,” she exclaims.
In 2013, Anderson restored the sculpture to its former glory, a cleaning process that she says took three months. Air pollution had built up on its ivory surface over the 100 years since the famous condiment-magnate H.J. Heinz purchased the Ivory Eagle—valued at about $5,000 in 1913—and donated it to the museum. “He collected a whole lot of stuff for us when he was traveling in Japan at this time,” Anderson says, “so I can only guess that he really liked it and thought it was spectacular.”
Its ivory feathers are not pure white; some shimmer with pastel blues and pinks. The sculpture appears to have been created in sections, likely by a team of Japanese craftspeople, Anderson notes. It is unlikely that it could be recreated today, she adds. First, it would be difficult to find enough craftspeople to produce it. “There was a whole industry making things like this, whereas today we don’t have that,” she explains. “Today, you’d be much more likely to see it cast in plastic.” Also, the ivory trade is banned in the United States, Europe, and many Asian countries—including Japan—to discourage elephant poaching. For that reason, Anderson says, there has been occasional talk of removing the Ivory Eagle from public view. The museum displays it with a description of the impact of elephant poaching and the international ivory ban.
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