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 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.


Canton enamel boxes quadruple top estimate at Lyon & Turnbull

Two attractive Canton enamel floriform boxes with covers  more than quadrupled the top estimate at Lyon & Turnbull’s Fine Asian Works of Art sale in Edinburgh on Wednesday December 11. Estimated at £8,000-£12,000 the hammer fell at £52,000, exclusive of 25% buyer’s premium.

lot 309 £63650

Floriform Canton enamel boxes £52,000

The battle for the two boxes, one of which bore a Quianlong mark and was said to be of the period (the other being said to be later), was largely between the telephone and the internet. Bidding started with a commission bid at £13,000 but the internet countered with an immediate bid of £18,000. The nature of the bidding seemed to suggest that the 12cm/ diameter boxes were believed to be an original pair from the Quianlong period.

This was not the highest bid of the sale. A 19th century full tip carved rhinoceros horn estimated at £30,000-£50,000 was sold for £54,000, exclusive of 25% premium, after a saleroom battle between two Chinese bidders in the room.

283 incl premium £66050

Carved rhino horn tip £54,000

A lime green ground famille rose meiping vase, jiaqing seal mark and of the period, was also sold to a Chinese buyer in the room at £34,000 (estimate £30-50,000). Many watercolour scrolls of 20th century vintage substantially exceeded their estimates whilst prices on less inspiring lots tended to be around the lower estimates.

meiping vase

Jiaqing meiping vase £34,000

The next Lyon & Turnbull Asian sale is on February 13 2014.