The future of the late Qing six-piece service, belonging to Mayfair Gallery of South Audley Street, is now uncertain.
The hearing in the first-tier Tribunal Tax court heard how in October 2015 the item – with ivory insulators – was impounded after it arrived in the UK without proper certification.
The gallery had sent it to Hong Kong for a fair and instructed a shipping company to ensure the correct licences were in place.
However, without a permit to re-import the set into the UK, the item was confiscated.
Following discussions with Border Force, the gallery began legal proceedings in 2016 to ask for the return of the set.
Mayfair argued the piece should not be confiscated because of its “exquisite artistic detailing” and because it is a part of “cultural history”.
However, the judge ruled there were “no exceptional reasons” why the set should be returned and that the gallery is responsible for importations and its compliance with all laws and regulations.
The tea set remains with the UK Border Force and the gallery is considering appealing the decision. A Home Office spokesperson said: “The tea set was seized under CITES legislation and remains under the control of Border Force. No decision has yet been taken on its future.”
They added that “as the unlicensed ivory is an integral part of the tea set the removal of the restricted material will not be permitted”.
Gallery manager James Sinai said he was unsure when the mistake was made and added: “We respect the law. We agree something needs to be done to stop the slaughter of elephants. But to stop antiques with a social and cultural value being traded – that won’t halt the illegal ivory trade.”