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Is it legal to sell antique ivory?

Is it legal to sell antique ivory


Arts and antiques are the leading sector for sales of antique ivory. To protect elephants and prevent their extinction by stifling trade, the UK government has passed what environment secretary Michael Gove is calling “one of the world’s toughest” bills.

The bill imposes a near-total ban on ivory trading, including antique ivory - no matter how old it is. If caught with antique ivory for sale, you could face up to five years in jail or an unlimited fine. This applies to sales through auction houses and centres as well as private web sales.

It’s an extremely worthy and important environmental cause. Around 20,000 African elephants are killed by poachers yearly, according to the WWF, while the Savannah elephant population has dwindled from 1.3 million to 415,000. Prince William has even made it his personal mission to protect these magnificent beasts. 

However, many dealers in the antiques trade are worried business will crumble and that items of rich cultural heritage will end up collecting dust or worse - on scrap heaps.

What are the exemptions in the antique ivory ban?

Antiques dealers have lobbied to prevent a complete ban. There are a number of exemptions to the bill:

  • Objects made before 1947 that are less than 10% ivory in volume.
  • Antique ivory portrait miniatures that are at least 100 years old.
  • Musical instruments such as pianos, which were made before 1975 and contain less than 20% ivory.

The bill is also looking at the extension to cover other ivory-bearing species, such as rhinos, hippos, walruses and narwhals.

How can dealers register ivory antiques for sale?

Many hobbyists as well as the general public will not be familiar with the ivory ban. They may ponder “is it legal to sell antique ivory?” but don’t know all the facts. This means that many people might be caught with accidental antique ivory for sale from house clearances or dead relatives. 

However, most of us in the antiques and arts world are now aware. What dealers and collectors may not know is exactly how to put up exempt ivory antiques for sale. To qualify, you need to register it with the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency. There’s a fee to register: it hasn’t been set yet but will likely be announced when the bill is finalised.

What does the ban on antique ivory mean for dealers?

While applauding the bill and its mission to protect endangered species, many dealers are arguing that banning the sale of centuries-old items will not stop modern poachers. They fear the exemptions are so miniscule it will mean that the majority of objects made from solid ivory will not qualify for legal trade. 

Japanese netsuke specialist Max Rutherston told artnet: “As all who have fought the bill know, and have stated vociferously, there is no connection between the trade in antique ivory and the poaching of these magnificent beasts.”

Sadly, many items which have been treasured for centuries are ivory antiques. Everything from inlays and handles on Georgian furniture to teapots, clocks and barometers contain the material. Historic treasures may be left in dealer’s inventories due to the time, money and effort required to register them - not to mention the fear of a jail sentence. 

What should anyone buying or selling ivory antiques be careful of?

Illegal ivory seizures in Europe hit a peak of 1655 specimens in 2016. While tight enforcement of the bill will hopefully prevent any of the gruesome killing business from happening, anyone buying antique ivory for sale must watch out for poachers and traffickers finding loopholes in this law.

There are also potential tighter regulations in the future to look out for. In January 2019, the European Commission issued a report from wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC. The 62-page report looks at the annual levels of commercial re-exports of worked ivory from the EU, which have grown to about 7,500 specimens in recent years. The UK had the highest re-export level, followed by Italy and Germany. 

With Blighty already under the ban, phrases such as “significant seizure reports” coming from European member states suggest that tighter rules across the continent could be on the horizon. Dealers do best keeping an eye on the news, CITES updates, and antique specialist blogs to stay thoroughly up-to-date on the bill.

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