A ban on the commercial trade in elephant ivory “except in a very limited number of circumstances” announced by the USA this month promises far-reaching consequences for the antiques trade.
Trade associations on both sides of
the Atlantic are pushing for a common-sense solution but the United
States said on February 11 that it will no longer permit commercial
imports of African ivory of any age, while domestic and export
trade will be limited to antiques defined as objects more than 100
Wildlife advocates welcomed the new
strategy (in the same week it was
reported the Duke of Cambridge wants all ivory works of art in the
royal collection to be destroyed as part of a 'zero tolerance'
policy towards illegal poaching). However, leading figures in the
British and American antiques trade voiced their concern at a
blanket law they doubt will do much to address the plight of the
Federal action on ivory has been in
the pipeline for some time.
American rules governing international
and domestic trade in elephant ivory were notoriously complex and
differed from state to state in both the letter of the law and the
degree of enforcement. The New York State Assembly has recently
raised the possibility of a state-wide ban on the trade akin to
that already operating in California.
Under the new rules announced by the
Obama administration as part of the National Strategy for Combating
Wildlife Trafficking, all 'commercial imports' of African elephant
ivory, including antiques, will be prohibited. "This ban is the
best way to help ensure that US markets do not contribute to the
further decline of African elephants in the wild," said a White
House statement. Commercial and noncommercial imports of antiques
made from Asian elephant ivory will be allowed "provided the
importer can prove the identification of the species."
From the UK, CITES specialist Kim
McDonald has sought clarification from the US Fish and Wildlife
Service regarding the precise legal meaning of the term 'commercial
imports'. They reported back with the following definition:
"Commercial means related to the offering for sale or resale,
purchase, trade, barter, or the actual or intended transfer in the
pursuit of gain or profit, of any item of
To determine if a transaction is
commercial, the Service looks at the intent of the import rather
than the nature of the foreign export.
What this will likely mean in
practice, says Mr McDonald, is that - in common with the
legislation in California - museums can add ivory works of art to
their holdings and private individuals can collect. But US dealers,
who previously bought ivory works of art from overseas with the
intention of reselling them in America, can no longer do
Promising to raise a few eyebrows, the
new law does permit American big game hunters to bring up to two
dead African elephants with tusks into the US a year (previously
there was no cap).
Commercial trade in ivory on American
soil (both domestic trade and exports overseas) will now be
primarily limited to "bona fide antiques". In an effort to address
previous shortcomings, the US government will now revoke a previous
Fish and Wildlife Service special rule that had relaxed Endangered
Species Act restrictions on African elephant ivory trade and has
sought to clarify what the word 'antique' means.
Under the previous system, most ivory
could be traded in the US if it was deemed to have been worked
before 1976 - a definition at odds with the 1947 cut-off date
adopted by EU CITES regulations.
Now, the White House said in a
statement, "to qualify as an antique, an item must be more than 100
years old and meet other requirements under the Endangered Species
Act. The onus will now fall on the importer, exporter, or seller to
demonstrate that an item meets these criteria".
A 100-year-rule would create
uncertainty around the trade in the many deluxe Art Deco pieces
produced in the 1920s and '30s that have traditionally appealed to
the US market and are an important part of the New York auction
scene. Under the ban, it would be legal to own items made from
ivory within the past 100 years and gift these to relatives - but
it would not be legal to sell them or to send them for sale in
Inter-state trade in antiques will be
permitted but again the biggest change will be that law enforcement
will no longer have to prove that ivory it seized was illicitly
acquired. A Task Force of Wildlife Trafficking have been asked to
finalise a proposal that will mean owners will have the burden of
proof to show an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for
African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants. They will need to
produce export permits from the country of origin and an import
permit - documentation owners and shippers may no longer
Much of the responsibility for
enforcing the new measures will be shouldered by the Fish and
Wildlife Service, the Justice Department and the State Department.
They say they will begin to implement some measures immediately,
others in the coming months, but as yet no enforcement guidance has
been provided to officers.
The White House said they "hope other
countries will join us in taking ambitious action to combat
wildlife trafficking" in the wake of the London Conference on the
Illegal Wildlife Trade on February 13.
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