An antiques dealer from Blue Bell and the former director of a whaling museum pleaded guilty yesterday to charges they illegally imported hundreds of sperm whale teeth from England and sold them to U.S. merchants who specialize in scrimshaw.
Martin Schneider, 60, got the teeth of the endangered whale in Britain and smuggled them into the country by hiding them among other goods he was importing. Prosecutors said he sold more than $500,000 worth of teeth from 1995 to 2005.
Lewis Eisenberg, 61, the former director of the Whalers Village Museum in Lahaina, Hawaii, bought teeth and resold them to collectors, many of whom trade in scrimshaw, an art form in which designs are etched into whale bone. Eisenberg, of Oak Harbor, Wash., sold teeth he got from Schneider for more than $45,000.
Both men pleaded guilty to violations of the Endangered Species Act, the Mammal Protection Act and the Lacey Act, which forbids the import or export of wildlife that is illegally transported or sold.
Acting on a tip, federal agents bought two whale teeth from Schneider in March 2005 for $2,100. Customs agents at Philadelphia International Airport later intercepted a package of his that contained eight more teeth, authorities said.
Investigators found records at his home showing he had sold $540,000 worth of teeth over 10 years.
Schneider's attorney, Gerald Stein, said his client believed the teeth came from whales that were killed by Russian fishermen before the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.
"He thought that these teeth were acquired at a time when it was legal to acquire them," Stein said.
An attorney for Eisenberg, Daniel-Paul Alva, said his client used bad judgment.
"He was silly," Alva said. "He knew it was wrong."
Under federal guidelines, prosecutors said Schneider will likely get 30 to 37 months in prison, while Eisenberg is likely to get 10 to 16 months. Both face thousands of dollars in fines.
Authorities said the arrests came as part of a nationwide investigation, which has led to one other conviction in Hawaii. But many collectors who bought teeth have not been located.