THE State of California has recently begun to strictly enforce a law banning the sale of ivory regardless of age. Dealers and auctioneers offering antiques made from ivory or including ivory among their constituent parts have had merchandise seized.

Laws pertaining to ivory sales in the USA differ from state to state. California's have been much amended across recent decades but are clearly written to explicitly forbid the trade in any part of any creature on the endangered species list.

There is no provision in the law for when an item was made or how long someone has owned it, and it was for this reason that eBay introduced a global ban on the sale of all types of ivory at the beginning of 2009. Possession with intent to sell is considered a misdemeanour level crime in California, punishable by fines of between $1000 and $5000 per violation.

The legislation's primary target is the modern ivory trinkets traded in quantity along the West Coast.

Common sense has prevailed in most cases, with flagship sales of Asian art or arms and armour and the West Coast staging of the Arts of Pacific Asia show among many fine art and antiques events held in California without incident.

However, following reports earlier in the month that bona fide antique ivories collectively valued at more than $10,000 had been seized at a Californian outdoor fleamarket, on February 18 armed and uniformed agents from the California Department of Fish and Game raided the viewing of a sale held by the Slawinski Auction Company of Scotts Valley.

They confiscated around 40 ivories valued at $150,000 scheduled to be auctioned on February 19. The 'contraband' (all of the items were thought to be more than a century old) has now become the property of a court, with a judge to decide soon if it should be destroyed.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Bonhams were preparing for one of their highly successful Asian art sales on March 13. It included more than 125 lots containing elephant ivory but on March 9-10 all were abruptly pulled from the catalogue.

Bonhams told reporters the decision was taken without pressure from state authorities. "We withdrew the ivories from our March sale proactively," they said. "We sought clarification from the state, but when it became apparent that such guidance was not forthcoming quickly, and our preview was approaching, we elected to withdraw the ivory lots in the interests of our clients.

"We've contacted the clients and informed them that we're deferring sales of their items in California until we get more clarification."

When asked by the Maine Antique Digest what may now trigger an ivory seizure in California, Patrick Foy, spokesman for the Enforcement Division of the California Department of Fish and Game, said: "If it's sitting in a case with a price tag on it, it is a violation."