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!

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.


Combing through China’s history . . .


Chinese ivory combs, like the ones illustrated here, were made for the Western market. Ivory work, primarily based in Canton (Guangdong), reached the apex of production between 1790 and 1850. Merchants and travellers typically brought home to Europe small items as souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. Additionally, an export  business gradually built up around small, decorative ivory pieces and combs (craved, fretted or pierced) became a part of this industry.

Ivory combs like these are crafted in the European style and would have been exported in substantial quantities to markets in the USA and Europe. Many of them were intricately carved and are evidence of considerable craftsmanship. Very often subjects of great Chinese symbolic importance were carved , like the dragon in the comb above. For Western purchasers such imagery was perfectly acceptable endorsing the credentials of the object as coming from the mysterious and exotic East.


These pictures are sourced from Barbaraaness Hair Comb blog. There is truly something for everybody on the net today, no matter how arcane your interest!


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 . . .

Ivory witch hunt about to take off at Ealing Magistrates’ Court

opinion hl

On Monday of next week, London auctioneer Chiswick Auctions goes to court charged under the criminal law of this land. What have they done?

No, they have not breached specious health and safety regulations, been party to murder or manslaughter, or part of some dreadful conspiracy to defraud the public in operating a so-called ring. They haven’t even got unpaid parking tickets, so far as I know.

No, they are alleged to have sold an ivory tusk worked as a train of elephants. And, horror of horrors, it is alleged it was from an elephant that died in 1960, or thereabouts, after the extraordinary CITES deadline of 1948. Apparently, the disputed object has been, most expensively for the public purse, tested and found to be ten or twelve years younger than the designated age required by a piece of faulty legislation. Frankly, I am even dubious about the test but best say no more about that at this stage . . .

I recently drank several  exceedingly good pints of beer whilst debating with dealers in antiques (and ivory) at length as to how one might determine between a piece of worked ivory from an animal killed in December 1948 and one killed in January 1949. It might sound a ridiculous discussion but the legislation on the statute book requires dealers and experts to reach such a precise determination. Of course, nobody can, and the legislation is unworkable except for in the present environment when rationale has gone out of the window and, even the Royal Family has taken highly worked and important historical pieces taken off display.

The extinction of species like elephant and rhinoceros is utterly deplorable, that is agreed by all thinking people, but the destruction of historically significant works of careful craftsmanship, made long ago, will not go one inch towards saving animals hunted by determined modern day poachers in Africa, or elsewhere. It would be far more constructive to ban and confiscate all easily identifiable large bore weaponry that has to be used to bring down large animals like the rhino and the elephant.

As a responsible journalist, and a member of The National Union of Journalists, I shall not debate the facts or circumstances of this particular case (we may do here afterwards). The case is, under British law, sub judice. Suffice to say, here at, we sniff the strong smell of a witch hunt. And, certainly, if the case goes against Chiswick next week, we shall likely see the complete removal of ivory from auctions all over the country.

You don’t have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer to understand what the effect of that will be. Ivory pieces will cease to be traded ‘over the counter’ neither at auction, nor even on the Portobello Road where this piece was sourced by PC Plod for the magnificent sum of £100 (presumably, it came out of Metropolitan Police expenses). Beautifully worked ivory will become a black market and will likely retreat onto the dark areas of the Internet only known to the criminal fraternity. And, of course, the price will rocket . . .

PC Plod would be better advised, in our view, to hang around London airport in the interests of public safety to catch ISIS terrorists, rather than pieces of carefully worked ivory to be found in shops and street markets and which apparently don’t quite make an arbitrary 1948 cut-off date.


Guru Battie defends ivory in letter to HRH

The high profile, renowned expert on Chinese and Japanese art, David Battie, possibly best known as TV guru on The Antiques Road Show, has written an open letter to HRH Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge, imploring him not to destroy historical ivory pieces in the Royal Collection. His important letter is reproduced below, courtesy The Antiques Trade Gazette which published it yesterday.

We have published several articles recently on the threat to future trade in important historical ivory pieces ( Battie’s call comes against drastic new restrictions on the trade in the US emanating direct from the White House and Prince William’s public campaign to halt any trade in ivory.

The feeling in the antique trade is generally that proposed moves will simply drive up the prices of surviving pieces which will then be forced into a black market. This, in turn, will simply serve to increase the demand for unprocessed ivory and actually harm the campaign to save the African elephant.

As Battie trenchantly put it this week, “Burning the art of our grandparents is not the solution.”

battie letter to HRH on ivory579

Courtesy Antiques Trade Gazette March 15 2014

doctor figure

Ultimately bound for the crusher? An interesting early 19th century Chinese doctor’s ivory figure used in consultations. To be sold next week by Thomson Roddick Scottish Auctions in Edinburgh

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.