Murshidabad chairs

In July 2022 four Murshidabad chairs from a suite of ivory and gilt furniture including a sofa sold for £3.1m at Christie’s. The sale appeared to be the first auction lot to benefit from the exemption to the Ivory Act allowing the sale of items of ‘outstandingly high artistic, cultural and historical value’.

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The Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA) said that since The Ivory Act – a near-total ban on selling antique ivory – came into force in June 2022, a total of 5388 antiques containing ivory have been registered prior to sale under the de minimus and portrait miniature exemptions. A further 91 items have been granted certificates as items of ‘outstandingly high artistic, cultural and historical value’ with 29 objects rejected under the same criteria.

The exemptions

However, what the statistical information does not reveal is how decisions are made.

Under the law antiques containing ivory can be exempt from the ban under four narrow conditions. These are:

• Pre-1947 items containing less than 10% ivory by volume.

• Pre-1975 musical instruments containing less than 20% ivory by volume.

• Pre-1918 portrait miniatures with a surface area of no more than 320 sq cm.

• Pre-1918 items deemed of outstanding artistic, cultural or historical value.

The registration process for de minimis and portrait miniature exemptions costs £20 per item or £50 for a group of objects (up to a maximum of 20). Owners wishing to sell a pre-1918 ivory item of outstanding artistic, cultural or historical value must pay a fee of £250 and submit details to a commit tee of museum specialists for assessment.

Currently the system is opaque. Many people in the trade argue a publicly available register would help in understanding what does and does not qualify for certification.

The idea was mooted during parliamentary debates in June 2018 when David Cowdrey, head of policy and campaigns at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Will Travers, president of Born Free Foundation, argued for a “public register… [as] seeing what has been sold for what amount is critical”.

Database demand

Michael Baggott, a silver dealer who has campaigned passionately against the Ivory Act, said: “The failing with the system itself is that there is no available list of exempted items, the criteria they were passed on, and more importantly, the criteria on which those failing the process were denied. The public and trade at large are still completely in the dark. An online illustrated searchable database of all submissions (denied and approved) with the deciding experts names permanently attached to their decisions seems the very least that is required.”

According to APHA data, of the 120 applications made since June under the ‘artistic, cultural and historical value’ exemption, a quarter were rejected.

The 91 certificates issued in 10 months is in line with estimates outlined in 2018.

Cowdrey and Travers said that they had been “told that this [exemption] is only for exceptional items – we are anticipating 75 to 150 a year”.

Baggott stated that those registering items still require guidelines when assessing whether or not an antique contains less that 10% ivory.

He added: “In practice it appears the government, with its new act, is operating a system based entirely on trust with more big holes in it than a wheel of Swiss cheese.

“This is against the option of having kept the original 1975 CITES guidelines (which were both less onerous on the antiques trade but also much more protective of historic works of art) and policing them with an expert body drawn from specialists and law enforcement.”