Our cultural heritage is under threat from a very well-meaning yet misguided effort to prevent modern poaching of elephants in Africa by banning the sale of antiques containing an element of ivory.
Specialist dealers and auctioneers are already scrupulous in their dealings with ivory, having no interest in post-1947 worked objects whatsoever. But sadly a small proportion of our trade, particularly at the lower-price end of the market, are unwittingly making errors.
Why the trade makes ivory mistakes
The reason this happens is best understood (and therefore in the future avoided) by considering the CITES ban on post-March 1947 ivory. It came into force on 1 July 1975 and immediately placed a retrospective ban on post-1947 works.
This meant that the low-value ivory pieces in Africa and the Far East legally between 1947-1975 purchased by tourists and overseas workers and brought back into the UK became unsellable.
Some of these low value, low quality pieces get scooped up in house clearances and appear at auction in job lots, where they are bought and then resold often in centres or fairs for very low figures.
It is not done to foster an illegal international trade with Chinese billionaires, but rather by unthinking individuals acting out of simple ignorance – which we know is no defence.
A two-fold solution
1. If in doubt, leave it out
Most importantly, be you dealer or auctioneer, and you see an object (irrespective of size or value) which is in whole or part ivory and you are uncertain of its date then, please, under no circumstances accept that item for sale. You should return it to the owner immediately.
If you are a collector and have recently purchased an object which is in whole or part ivory and you are uncertain of its date, under no circumstances offer that object for sale.
Our trade is packed with real expertise and knowledge, so let’s use that now to protect the works of art we all care so deeply about.
2. Establish an expert panel – similar to those overseeing silver
Why not copy the system we already have for assessing the authenticity of silver objects (another area of our trade directly governed by law), and set up a committee of specialists which meets several times a year to determine the probable date of worked ivory objects that are submitted to it.
This could take the form of a panel of, say, 12 antiques dealers and auctioneers who specialise in ivory or in objects with ivory components (objects of vertu, miniatures, silver, furniture, Japanese and Chinese art, and so on) together with museum experts and expertise from natural historians.
They would have to give their time freely. I, for one, would be happy to volunteer as much time as required and feel others within our trade would too.
That’s because the protection of all our cultural heritage is now one of the most important and urgent responsibilities given to our trade.