The Ivory Ban Express thunders down the track


opinion hl

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.

dreweatts chinese ivory coffee pot Museum quality? Probably

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.

SONY DSC  Museum quality? Probably not, but attractive just the same. Nevertheless, it’s the knacker’s yard for pieces like this . . . 

China Ivory Destruction

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.

doctor figure

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.

Hannams ivory basket Museum quality? Almost certainly





And it’s a happy new year for the African elephant . . .

It could well be a happy new year for the African elephant. In a dramatic, and wholly unexpected December 31 announcement, the Chinese government officially announced that it would ban any trading in modern ivory (with the notable and welcome exception of genuine antiquities) by the end of 2017. The ban will begin to take effect, gradually, from March 2017.


Photo courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland

China does, of course, represent the largest market in the world for ivory and such a ban will positively impact upon the preservation of dwindling elephant stock (it is estimated that one African elephant dies to the hands of poachers every fifteen minutes). An effective Chinese ban will significantly help stem the flow of modern ivory coming onto the market. Genuine antiques will still be tradeable under the new directive.

All responsible dealers will be glad to hear this most important piece of news. A Happy New Year to you all!

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.