Two businessmen pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court to illegally importing and purchasing sperm-whale teeth and reselling them for a profit.
The businessmen, Martin Schneider, 60, of Blue Bell, and Lewis Eisenberg, 61, of Oak Harbor, Wash., were part of an international racket that trafficked in sperm whale teeth, which can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market or engraved into handiwork called scrimshaw.
Both are to be sentenced in July and have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Schneider faces a potential prison term of 30 to 37 months and Eisenberg 10 to 16 months.
Thus far, the only other person charged is a Hawaiian businessman. The investigation is ongoing.
Sperm whales are protected as an endangered species and trafficking any part of them without permits violates several environmental laws aimed at discouraging poachers.
Authorities said Eisenberg was a customer of Schneider's from 2002 to 2006 and also sold sperm whale teeth to collectors and purveyors of scrimshaw.
Eisenberg was formerly the director of the Whalers Village Museum on the island of Maui, Hawaii.
Eisenberg and Schneider were charged by criminal information last August.
Schneider, an antique dealer, illegally smuggled hundreds of sperm whale teeth into the U.S. from a British source from 1995 to 2005 and resold them for $500,000, the charging papers said.
It's unclear how much profit Schneider pocketed from his illicit sales.
Eisenberg was charged with purchasing, receiving and shipping 25 sperm whale teeth in February 2005. Eisenberg sold the whale teeth for more than $45,000, netting about $10,000 in profit.
"It was silly, it was not for purposes of greed," said Eisenberg's attorney, Daniel-Paul Alva. "He didn't think it was that serious."
A single sperm whale tooth, which can measure up to 9 inches long and 3 inches in diameter, can fetch anywhere from $350 to $5,000, depending on its size.
Gerald Stein, Schneider's lawyer, said Schneider's source in Britain had assured him that all the sperm whale teeth sold to Schneider were acquired prior to 1970 when the Endangered Species Act was passed.
But Stein conceded Schneider had not obtained permits for the sperm whale teeth he had smuggled.