New York is a step closer to adopting new restrictions on ivory after the State Assembly passed the bill to bar nearly all sales of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn.
A last-minute amendment to the bill allows for the trade in antiques where ivory or rhino horn forms less than 20% of the object.
The bill, opposed by Sotheby's, Christie's and trade associations including the Art and Antiques Dealers League of America and the Appraisers Association of America, was passed almost unanimously on June 17. For the measure to become law, it now needs to be adopted by the New York State Senate and then signed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Governor Cuomo had earlier met with law makers to thrash out amendments to the bill that will offer just a few crumbs of comfort to the art dealing community and owners of antique ivory works of art. While the ban remains near wholesale, the revised proposals allow for a handful of narrow exceptions.
A clause to the final bill (A10143) introduced by primary sponsor Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, chairman of the Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation, on June 16 permits a commercial transaction when: "The ivory article or rhinoceros horn is part of a bona fide antique and is less than twenty per cent by volume of such antique, and the antique status of such antique is established by the owner or seller thereof with historical documentation evidencing provenance and showing the antique to be not less than 100 years old."
In short, items of furniture with ivory escutcheons or objects with small quantities of ivory inlay will still be permitted, but a Gothic ivory diptych or a Qing brush pot (solid ivory), a portrait miniature on ivory or an Art Deco bronze and ivory figure (made after 1914) will not.
Concessions and Penalties
Further concessions - again only applicable when documentation can be supplied - include string and wind musical instruments and pianos made prior to 1975, along with transactions made for educational and scientific purposes e.g. by museums or as transfers to the legal beneficiaries.
The New York bill also sets out tougher penalties for those who violate the rules. Where both the antiques trade and the legislature have been in agreement is that penalties for breaking wildlife trafficking laws were too light, with fines for the sale of post-CITES convention ivory amounting to little more than a slap on the wrist.
The new bill would increase the penalties to a fine of $3000 or twice the value of the article for the first offence, $6000 or three times the value of the article for the second offence, and a Class D felony for articles exceeding $25,000 - meaning between five and ten years in prison plus a significant fine.
A similar law moving through the legislature in nearby New Jersey has been passed by both the Assembly and the Senate, again by a near-unanimous vote.
The move to make New York State a no-go area for trade in ivory follows a January hearing in New York City attended by interested parties, including the antiques trade.
Assemblyman Sweeney believes the current laws that allow trade in worked antique ivory are subject to abuse and, in many cases, unworkable. At the 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), while the falsification of paperwork was said to be a frequent problem.
In an article titled Africa's elephants, New York's problem published in the run-up to the vote, Cyrus Vance, Manhattan District Attorney, wrote: "A recent state-wide survey indicated that 80% of New Yorkers support a permanent ban on ivory sales. They feel this way even when presented with the argument that a ban would negatively impact businesses such as auction houses and antiques dealers, as well as the rights of property owners."
US Federal laws, covering the entire United States, introduced in February already tightly restrict ivory imports and interstate sales.
In essence, the new regulations ban the commercial import of African ivory of any age, while domestic and export trade will be limited to antiques defined as objects more than 100 years old. 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.