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A bill that looks set to become law in New York State will prohibit the wholesale purchase or sale of any elephant ivory in the state - regardless of age. Penalties for doing so will be significantly increased.

Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, chairman of the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation (CEC), is the primary sponsor of bill A8824, which has 29 other co-sponsors. It follows new federal laws on the trade in ivory works of art announced in February.

The CEC have already passed the measures unanimously, attracting praise from conservation organisations.

The move to make New York a no-go area for trade in ivory follows a January hearing in New York City attended by interested parties, including the antiques trade.

Despite opposition from Sotheby's and Christie's, Assemblyman Sweeney believes the current laws that allow trade in worked antique ivory are subject to abuse and, in many cases, unworkable.

At the January hearing, officers for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service highlighted the problems of determining the age of ivory and distinguishing between African elephant ivory and ivory from other species (including mammoth ivory that will also be banned under the proposed legislation). The falsification of paperwork (currently, the sale of ivory in New York requires a licence from the Department of Environmental Conservation) was also said to be a frequent problem.

Sweeney said that while the existing law made exceptions for older ivory, "the problem is, according to the testimony we received at the hearing, there is not any way short of essentially dismantling the ivory object to determine what is antique and what is not".

If passed, the new law would "prohibit the sale, offer for sale, purchase, trade, barter, or distribution other than to a legal beneficiary of an ivory article" and have a huge impact on the antiques trade.

Christie's are opposing the legislation because it "would go well beyond what is needed to stop the slaughter of elephants for illegal elephant ivory and would end the legal and legitimate trade of antiquated objects containing ivory". They argue an exception should be made for "reputable museums, auction houses and others in the legitimate art market".


Although Sotheby's support the bill's motive - tackling poaching and trying to protect endangered species - they oppose it in its current form "because it will eliminate the important market for valuable works of art and other collectibles that are antique or were made well before the international regulation of ivory".

Where most parties agree, however, is that penalties for breaking the current law are deemed too light, with fines in the region of $2000 for the sale of post-convention ivory. The new bill would increase the penalties to a Class D felony ($25,000) and a Class E felony (up to $250,000) for repeat offenders.

Meanwhile the new federal rules aimed at restricting the sale of ivory across the US are making for some unlikely bedfellows. An unusual assortment of trade groups opposes the regulations (due to come into force by June), including the National Association of Music Makers, the Art and Antiques Dealers League of America and the National Rifle Association. Some museums are also concerned about the regulations, which will eliminate charitable tax deduction for all donated ivory works, regardless of their age.

In essence, the new regulations will ban the commercial imports of African ivory of any age, while domestic and export trade will be limited to antiques defined as objects more than 100 years old.

It is understood the new rules will also apply to rhinoceros horn, sperm whale teeth, tortoiseshell and certain woods that are also regulated under the USA's 1973 Endangered Species Act.