The ivory debate goes to The House of Lords (UK)


Colin Gleadell, The Telegraph

Date Published

See link for photo.  

Crunch time is looming for the trade in antique ivory works of art as the House of Lords debates what exemptions may apply to the government’s proposed ban on ivory sales on Thursday.

Lord Carrington, who has requested the debate, gets to the heart of the matter saying: “The question is how to structure exemptions which don’t allow the poached ivory market to pass off new ivory as antique.”

As the law stands, the sale of modern ivory is banned in an effort to curtail the slaughter of the African elephant for its tusks. The sale of antique ivory artworks is permitted because there is no direct connection between the sale of centuries-old works of art and present day slaughter. 

But extremist wildlife protectionists are pressing the government and the media for a complete ban in the trade of both the modern and the antique, arguing that there is an indirect link between antiques and contemporary poaching in that the antiques trade is used as a cover for selling newly poached ivory dressed up as antiques, i.e., fakes.

In a recent report made to support a total ban entitled ‘Two Million Tusks’, researchers combed Britain’s country salerooms to find some evidence that modern ivory is slipping through the net as fake antiques, and to establish that these salerooms could not date the ivory they were selling. In the latter, at least, they were successful.

But in focussing precisely on provincial areas where there is no ivory expertise, the report loses credibility.  Had it concentrated on the major London salerooms – Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and dealers such as Rosemary Bandini or Paul Moss, a specialist in Japanese netsuke who has written over 20 books on the subject – it would have found confident dating procedures and a lack of fake antiques – i.e., no grounds for a total ban.

Another total ban argument is that the price of antique ivory artworks cements the notion that all ivory is considered a luxury and a status symbol, whatever age. However, there is no evidence to support the view that the demand for modern ivory carvings is inspired by the price of antiques. Serious antique collectors and dealers look down on modern “trinkets”; they do not buy works of art because of the material but because of the skill and beauty of the artwork.

Everyone in the antiques trade abhors the elephant slaughter, and its specialists, along with the British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA), are backing a government proposal of a system of certification on antique ivory to support exemptions. These would make it impossible for modern or faked antique ivory works of art to be sold anywhere in the UK without a certificate. The money earned by issuing certificates would be used to help the war against elephant poaching.

But the protectionists argue that such a system would be hard to administer because it is difficult to distinguish between the genuinely old and the fake. They are inclined towards the option of a total ban, not because it is right or just, but because it is easier to administer. They should, therefore, seek out advice from the specialists who can tell the difference rather than trying to snuff them out.

The government consultation period ends on December 29, and anyone can have their say by either filling in the relevant form online, obtaining a paper questionnaire from: International Team – Ivory Consultation, 1E Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR, or by email from [email protected]