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The owner and assistant director of a Long Island City art gallery each face felony charges for selling an ivory sculpture to undercover state investigators, knowing it is illegal to do so, the Queens district attorney announced Monday.
Ro Gallery owner Robert Rogal, 70, of Manhattan and salesman Jaime Villamarin, 45, of Brooklyn each face up to four years in prison if convicted of the two violations of state Environmental Conservation Law they are charged with.
Elephants, which are targeted by poachers for their ivory tusks, are listed as an endangered species. In New York State, the sale of more than $1,500 worth of products made from elephant ivory without having first obtained a Department of Environmental Conservation license or permit is a felony.
“The arrest of these two individuals should send a strong message that illegally selling artifacts made from the ivory tusks of threatened elephants will not be tolerated in Queens County,” District Attorney Richard Brown said in a statement announcing the arrests. “Buyers of such items should also be especially cautious and only buy from licensed retailers. Otherwise, they may be indirectly contributing to the extinction of one of the world’s most magnificent animals — the elephant.”
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos commended both Brown and his office and the officers working the case in his own statement.
“Aggressively cracking down on the illegal market for ivory will help bring an end to the slaughtering of elephants and send a clear message that we will not allow this trade to continue in New York,” Seggos said.
According to the authorities, undercover agents with the DEC visited the Ro Gallery, located on 36th Street, on May 30, and Villamarin showed them two sculptures of ballerinas made with ivory. “These are ivory, but we don’t list them as such because you can’t sell ivory,” he allegedly told them.
After a follow-up email, the investigators were given a price for the work. On June 14 they returned to the gallery, met with Rogal and paid $2,612 in cash for the sculpture, the DA’s office said. The gallery owner allegedly then showed them another piece, priced at $3,600, and said, “I believe it is ivory” and “they don’t even allow the sale of them [ivory sculptures].”
An expert determined the ballerina sculpture was indeed made of ivory.
A search warrant was executed at the gallery July 6, and officers allegedly recovered several ivory sculptures, as well as works believed to be made from the tooth of a sperm whale and the skin of crocodiles. Forensic analysis of those items is pending.
The authorities say that before 2014, when state restrictions were enacted, New York City was considered the epicenter of the illegal ivory trade, with the United Nations estimating it at more than $23 billion a year. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that 96 elephants are killed for their ivory every day by poachers — even as their numbers in Africa have declined 30 percent over the last seven years to about 352,000.
The state law allows some exceptions, for antiques that are at least 100 years old and contain less than 20 percent ivory.
The Ro Gallery has an extensive website listing for sale artworks in various media by more than 5,000 artists. Searching the site for “ivory” yields no results for works for sale made of the substance, but several results speak of artists whose works the gallery carries who have sculpted it during their careers.
One search result is the profile for Dutch painter Henk Vos, two of whose prints the gallery is offering for sale. Each is a painting of a horse. But the profile notes that another Vos work, “Survival of the Giants,” which portrays a herd of elephants, “became the very symbol of the conservationist movement in Africa.”
“He has always given his time and valuable paintings to raise money to save these giants of the jungle from the “ivory massacre,” the profile says. “His fame has never diminished his deep commitment to the animals that inspire him.”
The Ro Gallery frequently holds art auctions, with the next set for July 26.