Amid Confusion Of Ivory Trade Ban, Experts Warn ‘Leave The Bone At Home’

ALBANY, N.Y. —  A bill proposed by the New York State Assembly, introduced by Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney on February 19,  to prohibit the purchase or sale of elephant ivory and to increase the penalties for doing so in New York has made this state, along with California, one of the most stringent in the nation with regard to banning ivory trade. And while such state efforts combined with the federal strategy enacted earlier this year are drawing praise from many quarters, dealers in antique ivory, as well as auction houses, are trying to sort out confusion over definitions and enforcement practices.

Along with the rightful demonization of those profiting in the illegal trafficking of elegant and rhino tusk ivory is a perhaps unintended but crippling demonitization of lifelong collections of antique ivory.

New York bill A8824, if passed, would “prohibit the sale, offer for sale, purchase, trade, barter or distribution other than to a legal beneficiary of an ivory article.” The bill’s backers seek to halt the issuance of licenses from the Department of Environmental Conservation to sell ivory. One needs a license in New York State to sell ivory, and DEP has the choice of whether or not to issue a license. Said Sweeney, “I am urging them to choose to protect elephants and to stop issuing licenses permitting the sale of ivory until there are provisions in place that will provide the elephants with the protections they need.”  The new bill would increase the penalties at least tenfold from what they are at present to a Class D felony ($25,000) and a Class E felony (up to $250,000) for repeat offenders.

The antique ivory collector and dealer community has repeatedly contended that it applauds closing the illegal poaching and trade that is driving the elephant to extinction. It has sought, however, to gain an exemption for antique ivory. The antique ivory community was initially able to breathe a sigh of relief, as the federal strategy, while immediately banning the commercial trade of elephant ivory, made  exemptions for what it calls “bona fide” antiques in commercial exports. It clarified the definition of “antique” to cover items that are more than more than 100 years old and that “meet other requirements under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The onus will now fall on the importer, exporter or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria,” it stated.

Current language in the ESA, however, concerning designated port of entry and exclusion of US-produced antiques makes it virtually impossible for someone to qualify for the exemption, according to some experts. And while modern forensics can aid in determining the age of an item, the practicality of doing this among the people doing the enforcement in the field is nearly impossible. While US Fish and Wildlife officials are more interested in catching smugglers and traffickers in rhino and elephant tusks than snaring honest business people, they do, in the words of one dealer, “respond to complaints and monitor the Internet in some fashion.”

The result is confusion within the antique ivory trade, with no standard US-wide enforcement but one that varies by state and region.

“In our area of interest,” said Andrew Jacobsen, a dealer and appraiser of marine antiques, scrimshaw specialist, “the Endangered Species Act must be rewritten with special attention to the designated antique port and domestically created antiques clauses. For the time, the working rule for the trade must be ‘Leave the Bone at Home.’”

New York auction houses are calling for more clarity, too, asking legislators to make a distinction between so-called “vanity” ivory items and culturally important objects that may contain the material.

Said a Christie’s spokesperson, “Christie’s unequivocally condemns the slaughter of elephants for illegal elephant ivory. Christie’s will not sell modern ivory, or unworked tusks of any age.

“Our responsibility is to ensure that illegal ivory cannot be sold at Christie’s. We sell historic objects of cultural and artistic importance, some of which contain ivory or are made wholly of ivory, such as Eighteenth Century furniture, objects of virtue, medieval, Renaissance and later ivory sculpture, Japanese netsuke and Eighteenth Century silverware. Ivory was commonly used in the decorative arts, when the elephant population was not under threat. The preservation and sale of these culturally significant works of art does not contribute to the current illegal elephant ivory trade. Poaching is driven largely by the demand for contemporary religious, tourist and trophy pieces — which we do not sell.

“In selling historic cultural objects that incorporate ivory we are careful to abide by all global and local laws designed to protect elephants. In particular, we operate in accordance with the CITES international convention and with all relevant national, federal and state regulations wherever we operate. Our specialists carry out stringent due diligence on the provenance of all such objects in order to satisfy ourselves that these strict criteria are met and that no objects that pass through our hands are the product of the illicit trade in ivory.

“Christie’s supports the clear legal distinction between the market for antique objects of cultural and artistic value — which we have a cultural responsibility to protect and preserve — and the unacceptable, illegal market for new ivory.

“By making our position clear, we hope to raise awareness and to encourage responsible behavior in buyers and sellers wherever they might trade in ivory objects.”

A Sotheby’s spokesman said, “Sotheby’s deplores the illegal slaughter of endangered wildlife and is proud of the company’s past and ongoing support of elephant and other conservation charities. However, while the aim might be laudable, we are concerned that these sweeping new regulations, and in particular the new restrictions severely limiting the antiques that can be legally sold or exported, will significantly impact collectors who have put together legitimate collections of this material over several decades. We look forward to establishing a dialogue with relevant bodies to inform them of the situation facing our clients, many of whom are now impacted by significant collateral effects as a result of this new order.”

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