It’s coming for sure. But collectors and dealers can only guess how long they have before the ivory ban express, currently thundering down the track, hits them, pretty much full on. The shape of the impact is being heavily leaked by an organisation operating under the acronym BAMF (The British Art Market Federation). You might not be acquainted with this none too illustrious organisation but, like it or not, BAMF (representative of several, but not all, art and antique trade organisations) has somehow emerged as the exclusive negotiator in a process which has apparently attracted more than 60,000 representations from the trade and the general public.
We are told that what BAMF is recommending to the government will probably be what we get in the end of the day. And it will mean the end for most dealers selling ivory antiquities. What are we looking at? Only a very small percentage of those pre-1947 ivory antiquities currently on the market will be able to be sold once the ban comes into force. In the not too distant future, they will be required to fit into very specific categories, viz. they will either be pieces in which ivory comprises a very small part (the so-called de minimis rule); or they will require to be items of artistic, cultural or historic merit based upon the criteria of so-called ‘museum quality. Items which fit into these categories would be licensed at a suggested fee of at least £50, plus VAT no doubt.
The sort of attractive, well carved 18th or 19th century items which constitute the main part of the trade today will not qualify for sale, although there may well be bitter argument over individual items. That begs the question as to who will be sitting in judgment? Well, surprise, surprise that might well be a committee set up of the great and the good by the aforementioned BAMF. Doubtless there will be many top flight dealers pushing themselves forward. They might, of course, be the same people, or type of people, who are wealthy and influential enough to own and trade in those ‘museum quality’ items. However, items like the ones below (the relatively common ‘Doctors’ Figures’) are not quite their sort of thing and, despite their historical interest, they will disappear from circulation.
As is so usual these days in all walks of life, those at the top of the tree will be virtually unaffected by the new legislation. They will prosper as ever. It is the smaller dealer who will bear all the cost of this ban, most of whose stock will have been painstakingly (and expensively) accumulated over many years when there was no suggestion that their right to trade might suddenly disappear virtually overnight. It is the smaller trader’s stock which will become unsalable if it cannot be proved to be of ‘museum quality’.
What is to be done then with these tens of thousands of pieces of carved ivory? It may, of course, be possible to write off their original purchase cost as a tax loss. The catch there is that Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs will almost certainly require the destruction of the pieces. Another option might be to swamp the Committee of the Great & The Good with applications for thousands of pieces to be recognised as being of ‘museum quality’. The downside there might be that pieces not accorded such special status would also be destroyed By Order of said committee, in much the same way as in France paintings adjudicated upon by the estates of well known artists as being copies or forgeries are routinely destroyed.
The supreme irony is that the expected legislation will not only fail to save the threatened elephant population but will actually bring its demise rather nearer. What very few people appear to have taken into account is the fact that an almost complete ban here on trade in the UK will not dent in any way the appetite in the Far East for processed ivory. That will continue unabated. At least the legitimate trade in historic pieces in the UK has hitherto significantly satisfied that demand. When such pieces are withdrawn from the marketplace then Far Eastern buyers will simply buy modern ivory feeding the modern day activities of the poachers, illegal dealers and criminal organisations.
The upcoming legislation is, of course, politically motivated. A beleaguered government with a wafer thin majority is only too willing to adopt a policy which is essentially populist. To fondly imagine it is really based on saving the elephant would be quite wrong. The present government of the UK is even more beleaguered than the elephant population and is only too willing to push through a piece of legislation based upon totally false assumptions.