Chiswick Auctions drop ivory sales after court case

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The trade magazine Antiques Trade Gazette reports in its current issue that Chiswick Auctions are to stop selling ivory pieces. The auction house was prosecuted October 13 for selling a lot catalogued as ‘an antique carved ivory tusk worked as a train of elephants.’ Under CITES regulations it is illegal to sell items containing ivory which date from after an arbitrary cut-off date of 1947.

Chiswick had previously sold the piece to a Portobello Road trader from whom it was seized in a police raid. The police sent the item away for testing (at a reputed cost in excess of £2,000) and a laboratory test indicated that it came from an elephant deceased in the mid-1960s. Chiswick chose to plead guilty and were fined £4,500 (the maximum fine being £5,000) which was reduced to a still very hefty £3,200 after taking into consideration the guilty plea.

Now Chiswick’s managing director has apparently told ATG that his auction house “will lead the way” with a self-imposed ban on all ivory sales except where ivory constitutes less than 5% of the object concerned.

opinion hl

The View from Here This most unfortunate case, which we have written on before, raises many disturbing issues, viz.

it seems unfortunate to us that Chiswick Auctions failed to defend the action. Clearly, a mistake was made and, giving them the benefit of the doubt, the Lot either slipped through in the normal chaos of daily life in an auction room, or, possibly, the employee who allowed it to go on sale genuinely thought it was a piece pre-1947.

Frankly, it is extremely difficult very often to tell between a piece from 1947 and one from 1964-66. As such, the law as it stands is unworkable. We are doubtful about the laboratory testing and extending the logic to the extreme implied by the law, can the laboratory tell between a piece made in December 1946 and one originating in January 1947. To put it bluntly, in this case, as the old adage goes, the law is an ass.

The fine imposed was at the uppermost level allowed by the Act controlling trade in endangered species. This was a first offence, the consideration involved was, in monetary terms, very modest, and there was no evidence to the fact that this had been a deliberate course of action perpetrated by the accused. The evidence appears to suggest it was a genuine mistake that was made and a fine of a few hundred pounds would seem to us to be nearer the mark.

Having received such a punitive fine, in our view, instead of meekly caving in, the auction house would have been best advised to lodge an appeal against the sentence. To respond by claiming to lead the way on banning ivory sales seems disingenuous and rather unfortunate. These proceedings will inevitably pass into both case law and folklore and will further serve the cause of driving the trade in genuine and unique historic artefacts underground. The witch hunt is set to continue . . .

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