On January 7 Chinese authorities graphically demonstrated a new tough stance on the ivory trade, when approximately six tons of ivory was destroyed in public before a large congregation of media in the country’s southern Guangdong province. Significantly, not only were whole tusks crushed, but also hundreds of worked items. Their provenance was not made clear but we assume that these pieces were either un-certificated imports or of new manufacture within the PRC.
In addition to media, there were many state officials, foreign diplomats and wildlife campaigners present at the event signalling that the Chinese state has determined a severe crackdown on both smugglers and those who profit from the trade further down the line. China has become infamous for the smuggling of ivory (it is reckoned that 22,000 elephants were killed last year and that China was the largest recipient of illegal ivory).
Previous crackdowns on goods like illegal DVDs, Burberry bags and Rolex watches have taken most of the supplies off the streets of cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Whilst not 100% effective, they have served to generally diminish criminal activity. They have demonstrated the fact that the Chinese government is sensitive to international pressure, especially where it might affect exports through application of threatened sanctions.
This new crackdown does, however, pose questions for antique dealers and auctioneers as to how it might affect sales within the UK. CITES regulations totally ban any traffic in unworked ivory. They do, however, permit trade in antique items (effectively pre-Second World War) which have been worked and which can be shown to be genuinely old. However, an export certificate is required even for antique items and this process can be extended in practice.
Anyone working in the area knows full well that many Chinese dealers attend sales in the UK and then personally export items made from either ivory or rhinoceros horn, which are particularly in demand, using the simple stratagem of taking the items out personally in their baggage. Most do not apply for CITES export certificates. Chinese dealers have confirmed to us that there is enormous demand for attractive worked ivory pieces in China. It is effectively insatiable.
There could be two quite diverse reactions to the crackdown: the price of antique pieces may slump if dealers desist from the dangers of personal export/import; or it may serve to push up prices as ivory becomes a rarity on the Chinese market. Ingenious dealers, of course, will always find a way to get works to their customers.
Antique items require export permit. Pic courtesy www.chineseartinscotland.co.uk
It seems to us that the serious regular dealers will now be more careful to obtain CITES certificates. Smaller operators may hang back for a while, but will then return to the market having worked out their strategies. Either way, we see prices remaining relatively stable after an initial dip. In the long term, escalation seems inevitable. Auctioneers may be called upon to provide more in the way of paperwork and attestation as to the antique status of objects sold.