Are UK owners of ivory in panic mode?

There are no statistics available so this might just be a guess on our part . . . but it does seem to us, at, that there is an awful lot of Chinese worked ivory coming onto the market in the last few months. Indeed, there seems to be a plethora of beautifully worked pieces around at the moment. Are owners disposing of their collections in fear of the present Conservative government fulfilling its rash and ill thought out election pledge to ban the sale of ivory?

The many recent Asian and Chinese auctions have featured a considerable amount of ivory – certainly, rather more than usual. Some auctioneers, however, are abjuring ivory and not accepting it for sale at all. Chiswick Auctions went down that road after their prosecution and £3,200 fine in 2014 for selling a piece of worked ivory which turned out to date from the 1960s. In a recent Antiques Trade Gazette article on Asian Art in London, Lyon & Turnbull’s Lee Young went on record as stating his company would only accept some of the very best pieces and was drawing away from the area.

Effectively, if auctioneers stop selling historic ivory pieces they will simply pave the way for government legislation allowing the politicians to say, “Well, the market has decided not to sell the stuff so all we are doing is formalising it.”

Although there is a welcome academic initiative from the School of Law at Portsmouth University, which has just embarked on a year-long study of the possible outcome of a ban, it may well not have a direct impact on law making apart from spurring more unwelcome attention..

Our position here has always been that we think the existing CITES regulations are perfectly adequate as a basis for dealing in historic, worked ivory; and that any ban on trading such items would be unfair in the extreme on reputable dealers, collectors and those who have unwittingly inherited items of beauty and history which happen to be made of a material now ruthlessly condemned by the politically correct. As much as we deplore the killing of endangered elephants for modern use of ivory, it is not possible to turn back the clock. Historic pieces of worked ivory, many of them exquisitely accomplished centuries ago are a part of our heritage and should remain so. Any ban will, of course, drive the market underground, closing down availability and pushing up prices. So maybe now is actually the time to invest . . .

Illustrated below is one very fine piece which will be exposed for sale in Hannam’s next auction on December 11.

hannams lot 612

hannams lot 612 detailhannams lot 612 detail end

Lot 612 A Canton carved ivory tusk. Most probably 19th century, if not earlier, and particularly well carved.


Chiswick Auctions drop ivory sales after court case

China-Ivory-destru_2782691b ed

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 . . .

Newly acquired moral values threaten very existence of antique ivory treasures

opinion hl

Not before time, government and international organisations are moving to bring to an end the commercial trade in ivory as species like the African elephant and rhinoceros are threatened with extinction. No reasonable person could object to bringing an end to the commercial exploitation of diminishing stocks of such precious animals. However, persons who have never really thought about the issue previously are now clambering aboard an emotional bandwagon: professional pundits, posturing politicians and the liberal righteous are all threatening to bulldoze through some rather alarming impositions, which threaten to bring to an end for all time the legitimate trade in beautiful objects created a long, long time ago.

BBC ivory ed

Ivory destruction in China January 2014  Photo courtesy Associated Press

Historically, the small scale collection of ivory and objects like netsuke has been a perfectly acceptable activity. Today, the pendulum of public opinion, a notoriously fickle thing, has swung quite the other way. The Duke of Cambridge has announced he is to rid the Palace of objects made from ivory and writing in the august Financial Times on February 23, Hillary Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, aver “retailers need to stop selling ivory products . . .  we strongly endorse a complete ban on ivory sales in the US.”

On February 11 2014, The White House issued a statement of policy in reaction to growing pressure. It was unequivocal:

All commercial imports of African Elephant Ivory, including antiques, will be prohibited

All commercial exports will be prohibited, except for bona fide antiques . . . To qualify as an antique, an item must be more than 100 years old . . . The onus will fall on the importer, exporter, or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria.

The new definition of an antique will effectively require an ivory object to be pre-First World War. At present, CITES regulations require a piece to be post Second World War, pre-1949. The exact dating of ivory objects is tricky and this will pose some interesting challenges. However, for the moment, this will largely be a problem for the US antique trade. It will not be able to import any antique ivory objects any longer. For exports, i.e. from existing stock in the US, it will possibly be necessary to have the wholehearted agreement of a panel of experts. Ever tried to get into Kennedy Airport wearing a leather sporran with your kilt? I did. And it was seriously problematic back in 1976.

The place of antique ivory objects, handcrafted as one-offs, in culture and history is being completely ignored in a headlong rush for political correctness. The main markets for ivory figures and, indeed, unworked ivory, remain in Asia with China being the largest. However, as we reported last month, even China is clamping down.

Here at ChineseArt, we think it may not be too long before the trade in any historic ivory-fashioned item will be banned completely. It is only a few short steps then before collectors and dealers will find that they will have to give up some of their most prized objects to some government agency. By that stage, the Duke of Cambridge will surely have carried through his stated intention of getting rid of all items of ivory held in Buckingham Palace and other Royal property in the UK. Shortly, after that, we confidently predict, ivory objects will disappear from state and local authority museums in the cause of political correctness.

From that situation, it is but one small step to the destruction of items maybe held for many hundreds of years. The only remaining handcrafted, historic ivory pieces will be those surreptitiously buried in the woods or squirreled away into attics and cellars by loving collectors, for taking out in secret for private acts of admiration and celebration. However non-politically correct that might be, such preservation of historic artefacts will not threaten the existence of the African elephant. Look to the source: to the criminal gangs, the poachers, and the mafias and not to experienced and knowledgeable collectors, dealers and auctioneers whose advice, by and large, is not sought in this blind stampede to accommodate uninformed public opinion.


What happens after China’s new tough stance on ivory?

China-Ivory-destru_2782691b ed  Finely carved ivory pieces crushed  Pic courtesy CNN

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).

China Ivory Destruction                Worked ivory prior to destruction  Pic courtesy BBC

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.

SONY DSC Antique items require export permit. Pic courtesy

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.