How the disapproval of ivory affects the art trade


Harriet Fitch Little, Financial Times

Date Published

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A new ban on ivory sales in France has riled antique dealers, who think that the complex rules governing the trade in certain materials are becoming a hindrance rather than a help. 

Even mammoth ivory carvers are worried, says Bruce Schindler, who lives in Alaska and has been carving statues and jewellery out of mammoth ivory for 23 years. It’s an unusual and unpredictable art: despite surviving for over 10 millennia in the permafrost of the Yukon, tusks can crumble when cut and decompose quickly once exposed to the elements. “If you don’t do something with them they will rot,” he says. 

Mammoth ivory is perhaps the most exotic material used in works of art that can currently be traded without a paper trail. But over the past few years, the suggestion of controlling, even banning, the sale of mammoth tusks has been increasingly mooted. Some conservationists believe that restrictions would help fight elephant poaching by removing the possibility of modern elephant ivory being passed off as mammoth at the point of sale.

If legislation is introduced, it will be the latest in a roster of tight restrictions on the trade in ivory objects. In 2014, the US outlawed commercial ivory imports. In May this year, French politician Ségolène Royal seized the opportunity of one of Kenya’s biggest ivory burns to announce that France was introducing “a ban on any kind of ivory trade”, although more recent reports suggest there may be some exceptions. At a UN conference to be held in South Africa later this month, the possibility of a global ban is on the table. 

The need for action is clear. A census published late last month revealed the scale of the crisis that savanna elephants are facing: a decline of 30 per cent between 2007 and 2014, which put the total population at slightly over 350,000. 

Antique dealers (and mammoth ivory carvers) are concerned by the stricter regulations, arguing that the trade in old ivory has no bearing on the current poaching epidemic. 

“Ivory has been a chosen material for great works of art for thousands of years,” says Max Rutherston, an Asian art dealer who specialises in netsuke — the intricately carved button-like ornaments from Japan that were popularised by Edmund de Waal’s 2010 memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes. 

“I’m not just talking about netsuke,” Rutherston continues. “I’m talking about works of art from antiquity, about many of the earliest Christian objects of worship, some of the most important Byzantine objects?.?.?.?Gothic, Renaissance and particularly palatial works of art were made of ivory.”

Rutherston’s ivory netsuke sales are controlled by Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Cites allows for ivory carved before 1947 to be traded freely within the European Union, and elsewhere with an Article 10 licence. Some items worked after 1947 can be traded, but regulations are stricter. 

Rebecca Davies, chief executive of Lapada, the UK Association of Art and Antiques Dealers, says that the situation can be confusing: guidelines change without warning, and dealers need to be aware of laws in different countries that may exist to supplement Cites. “Especially with the US ban on ivory, we’ve received an increase in [phone] calls [from dealers],” she says. 

But Davies says that it is not ivory that elicits the most enquires. Cites regulations control some 30,000 plant species and over 5,000 animal species, a small but significant fraction of which are common in antiques. Some of these are effectively banned from trade, such as antique rhino horn, which cannot be exported from the UK. But many others can be legally sold with the correct permissions. Davies most often picks up the phone to find a dealer worried about Cites-listed woods on the line — restrictions are complicated as they vary not only according to species but also genera, country of origin and date. Brazilian rosewood, which was popular among Regency furniture makers, is particularly fraught, as it is afforded the highest level of Cites protection and can only be traded with permits and proof of age.

Martin Levy, director of the antiques dealership H Blairman and Sons, says that dealers need to be able to navigate the legislation because of the regularity with which certain exotic materials appear in antiques. 

“If you take a serious collector of Baroque art, they will own furniture and works of art made of every material you can imagine, because one of the things about that period is that there was a fascination with raw materials,” he explains. He also gives the example of Boulle, a popular style of marquetry in 18th- and 19th-century French furniture that combined brass and tortoise-shell inlay. 

Flouting the regulations is inadvisable. In January, a shipment from four UK antique dealers destined for the Original Miami Beach Show was stopped by US customs. Antiques with ivory parts were discovered, as well as elements featuring rare feathers, mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell — materials that are allowed to be imported to the US but only with licences. The Antiques Trade Gazette reported that the ivory elements were removed and crushed, and that feathers on an 18th-century music box were stripped.

Increasingly, artists are learning to navigate this same territory, due to the surge in popularity of exotic taxidermy in contemporary art. “The artistic use of it really has only taken off in the 1990s,” says Alexis Turner, author of Taxidermy (2013), adding that there had been a particular spike in interest over the past five years. The cover of his book is a photograph of an elephant suspended upside down, seemingly floating: Daniel Firman’s “Nasutamanus” (2008). Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan and Polly Morgan are other pioneers of the genre. 

Today’s taxidermy artists have a different approach to their Victorian predecessors, insists Turner, who says he has never met an artist who kills animals to stuff. (For Short Sentences, Softly Spoken, Polly Morgan’s exhibition of snake sculptures, the artist cold-called pet shops and asked them to let her know when exotic specimens died.) 

But Turner admits that he sees illegal sales “every week” on auction websites, items such as barn owls and antique swordfish blades being sold without the Article 10 licences they require. Turner thinks the sales are mainly the result of dealers being unaware of how far regulations extend. 

“It’s confusing for people in the business, let alone people who aren’t dealing with it on a daily basis,” he says.

Rutherston asserts that there are similar things happening with ivory: he sees potentially suspect online netsuke trades “every day”, he says — items billed as antique that he suspects were carved post 1947. He would like to see the trade internally regulated: “I don’t think people on market stalls should be allowed to sell ivory, because I think most of the time they don’t know what’s old and what’s new, or if they do know they don’t care.”

Towards the southern end of Portobello Road market in London, where stalls are scattered with ivory trinkets, dealers have their own system for navigating the complexities of this controversial trade. If a customer starts asking questions about age or provenance, the response is invariably the same: “If you don’t think it’s old, don’t buy it.” 

The question of whether the selling of antique ivory contributes to modern-day poaching is fraught, with a dearth of facts and an abundance of passion on both sides of the debate. Anti-ivory activists worry that modern ivory can be easily disguised as antique by unscrupulous suppliers. “Is everyone who sells ivory an expert appraiser?” challenges Jane Alexandra, who campaigns with Action for Elephants. “Anyone who can get their hands on ivory can sell it.” 

A recently released survey from Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, suggested that the worry may be without foundation: a tour of antique shops in the UK turned up no new or unworked ivory for sale, and only one item from after the 1947 cut-off date for antiques. The authors wrote that “links with the current elephant poaching crisis appear tenuous at best”. 

Other statements are harder to quantify. Campaigners argue that the sale of any ivory confers value, making it a more desirable material in the Asian countries where the trade in poached ivory is rife. Antique dealers counter that the two markets are distinct. 

Then there is the moral argument to be reckoned with: “Disregarding whether it’s an antique or a modern ivory ornament it still represents a horrendous massacre,” says Alexandra. 

Lucy Vigne, an ivory researcher working in east Africa, believes that those involved need to change focus. “This recent issue in the west has been taking away valuable time and resources from dealing with the big issues we are facing urgently,” she says, referring to the trade in new ivory in Asia and poaching in Africa. 

While it seems unlikely that agreement will be reached any time soon, there is one step that campaigners feel could make a big difference in the meantime. “If someone knows that someone’s selling illegal ivory it would be quite nice if they tipped someone off,” says Alexandra, referring to the antique dealers who claim to frequently spot suspicious trades online.