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.
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.