tea set
This Qing dynasty silver tea set, belonging to Mayfair Gallery, was seized by UK border force in October 2015 after it was found to have no valid import licence and contained ivory.

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The hearing in the first-tier Tribunal Tax court heard how in October 2015 UK Border Force had seized the item belonging to Mayfair Gallery after it had no valid import licence and contained ivory.

Following discussions with the UK Border Force, the South Audley Street gallery began court proceedings in 2016 to ask for the return of the set.

The item was exported to Hong Kong for a trade fair and under CITES regulations required a licence each time it crossed a border. The appropriate licence was obtained for export from the UK, import into Hong Kong, and re-export from Hong Kong. However an error occurred for the re-import into the UK and the item was seized.

According to the gallery, the six-piece tea set contains less than 1% ivory, but it still required a permit.

Like many 19th century tea services, the handles include small pieces of ivory as insulators. The overall amount is a few grams, compared with a few kilogrammes of silver.

The gallery had instructed a shipping company to ensure the correct licences were in place.

Respect The Law

But gallery manager James Sinai told ATG: “We are still not sure where the mistake was made but an error occurred and the piece did not have the correct licence at the time of import back into the UK.”

He added: “We respect the law. We absolutely agree that something needs to be done to stop the slaughter of elephants, which is abhorrent and disgusting. The last thing we want to see is these animals become extinct… But to stop certain antique goods with a social and cultural value being traded - that won’t stop the illegal ivory trade.”

Despite the gallery’s pleas, the judge ruled there were no “exceptional” reasons why the tea set should be returned and that the gallery is responsible for importations and its compliance with all laws and regulations.

Sinai argued the piece should not be confiscated because of its “exquisite artistic detailing” and because it is a part of China’s “cultural history”.

The tea set remains with the UK Border Force and the gallery is considering appealing the decision.

For more on this story see the print edition of Antiques Trade Gazette next week (ATG No 2287).