Art Sales: the ivory showdown


Colin Gleadell, The Telegraph

Date Published

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Antique dealers in Great Britain are gearing up to present the government with their case for trading in works of art made using ivory and rhino horn, just as wildlife protectionists are seeking to close their trade down.

At the heart of the matter is the African elephant and rhino, heading towards extinction if their slaughter by poachers to sell their tusks and horns continues. It is estimated that about 30,000 elephants are shot each year feeding a £15 billion annual trade in ivory. Rhino horn is currently more valuable than gold, dealers say.

For at least a decade, governments have been responding to the need to ban the trade in modern ivory. In the UK, the law prevents the trade in modern ivory artworks and unworked ivory of any age, but allows dealing in carved or ‘worked’ ivory dating from before 1947. This was selected as the cut-off date in 1997 because of the 50-year interval and because carbon-dating tests can establish whether or not the tusk existed before the first nuclear bomb tests, which began in 1945.

A 17th-century Florentine palisander and ebony table top inlaid with ivory and scagliola, with a strong resemblance to similar tables in the Pitti Palace, on an English ivory-inlaid macassar ebony and ebonised base, circa 1830. £85,000 CREDIT: JAMES GRAHAM STEWART

However, environmentalists believe the law has not gone far enough. In this newspaper, Lord Hague has called for the government to honour its election manifesto pledge to “press for a total ban on ivory sales”. It is necessary to restrict the current legal trade in pre-1947 ivory, he argued, because it acts as a cover for illegal ivory to be moved about.

The figurehead for the environmentalist campaign is the Duke of Cambridge, the Royal Patron of African wildlife trust, TUSK. TUSK founder, Charles Mayhew, echoes Hague’s concerns about exempting pre-1947 works. “I can’t tell the difference,” he admits, “so how can the law be enforced?”

Joining the campaign is the TV chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who concluded his two-part BBC documentary on the ivory trade last night. His argument went further than Hague and Mayhew. “Thousands of pieces of antique ivory are sent to a corrupt market in Asia, which (by feeding that market) makes us complicit in the killing of elephants in Africa,” he said. Turning on the antiques trade he shows no mercy: “Can concerns for a small section the antiques trade really outweigh doing everything we can to save the elephant?”

But he fails to pin down Secretary of State for the Environment, Andrea Leadsom, on whether her party’s manifesto promise includes pre-1947 ivory works of art. Clearly the antiques trade case warrants close attention, but Fearnley-Whittingstall disregards it, even a recent official study that found “links with the current poaching crisis appear tenuous at least”. He concludes instead that “we have to eradicate demand (for ivory). So come on: let’s ban the UK ivory trade!”

However, not everyone is convinced that he has proved his point. Where is the association amongst buyers of new ivory with the antique? Why the difficulty in distinguishing the two? “When the agencies concerned claim that they can’t tell the difference between old and new, they are being disingenuous,” says netsuke specialist dealer, Paul Moss. “We’ve seen them at work, and they are quite well-trained.”

Moss also thinks the sequence about fake antique ivory at auction was contrived. “Can a serious TV programme not bring itself to show just one really worthwhile antique work of art to make the argument less blatantly one-sided?” he asks. How different that sequence might have looked if they had applied the same test to more objects like the two and a half inch, 18th century ivory carving of a shaggy dog that is coming up for sale at Bonhams on Thursday from the universally admired netsuke collection of Julius and Arlette Katchen.

With such an emotive issue, there is a danger of crossing the boundaries of reason. As Conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea and president of the British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA), Victoria Borwick sees both sides but has no doubt where she stands. “No one in the antiques trade supports the killing of elephants,” she says, but “people unfamiliar with the antiques trade, who regard all items containing ivory as a single market, are mistaken. To ban the sale of an 18th century cabinet inlaid with ivory to stop Far Eastern buyers from buying carved modern buddhas holds no logic. A ban on antique ivory would be cultural vandalism,” she says.

Borwick believes a solution lies in a more “closely regulated” antiques trade which could protect elephants and our shared cultural and artistic heritage simultaneously. If antique ivory objects were channelled only through the hands of experts recognised by a trade body like BADA, the government could monitor the trade much more easily than they imagine.