Rather like the many arguments over Brexit, the reality is actually now clear for all to see.
Concerns of dealers and auctioneers with decades of experience were ignored or simply dismissed, yet it is now with DAILY regularity that the broken and stripped remains of many antiques come to auction.
Teapots without handles as the insulators were ivory, cutlery without handles, furniture stripped of inlay, even fine pairs of pistols without handles. Some are shared through the ARC [the Antiques Rescue Centre set up by the writer of this letter, Michael Baggott] Twitter and Instagram accounts in the hope of raising wider public awareness of this silent cultural crime.
Lobbyists and government alike wilfully ignored the countless mixed-media antiques and naturally collected ivory’s ubiquitous use for centuries.
Worryingly we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg. The few items that firstly make it to auction (usually as part of a deceased clearance) and then only those that retain a semblance of value when all the ivory elements have been removed. Usually precious metals, gold mounts, jewellery and silver, reduced simply to scrap. Bullions dealers’ melting pots are bulging even more so.
Call in to any precious metal dealer and they will show you the latest collection of Georgian and Victorian silver, stripped and twisted by the removal of its ivory (due to a punitive 10% de minimis level) ready to be melted down.
This is not the case of a ‘handful’ of items. This is the wholesale destruction of many mixed-media antiques on an unprecedented scale.
We see perhaps one or two objects in each of the few hundred auctions up and down the country each week. Then multiply that by 10 for the bullion dealers and again for all those items from a clearance that have little or no value once torn apart, those that are simply ‘skipped’.
The horrifying truth is that thousands of items each month are being destroyed, lost forever. All this is happening against a backdrop of the new act not (to my knowledge) as yet never being physically policed or enforced.
It is also worth remembering that High Court judge Mr Justice Jay concluded in 2019 that the act was unlikely to have any effect on the illegal trade of ivory in the UK and in other countries, and that he dismissed the challenge to the act “with some regret”.
The people who introduced this flawed and ultimately useless legislation need urgently to revisit it.
At the very least the de minimis level MUST be revised to 50%. This will not save everything by any means, but it would restore a value to the majority of silver and ivory objects at the very least.
Need for acceptance
Though the Antiques Rescue Centre (ARC) has had a handful of enquiries to make donations of unwanted antique ivory we sadly have not yet been able to join up the dots.
Auctioneers very kindly do recommend it as a course of action but then decline to accept the items themselves. Currently only four auctioneers nationwide have agreed to help and none sadly, have as yet, been near enough to potential donors for them to drop items off.
Let’s be clear. The ARC shouldn’t be required. Government should, in tandem with introducing the 2018 Ivory Act, have made provision for a centre (be it a big metal shed on an industrial park) with one or two members of staff in situ, both to advise the public and accept and house unwanted works of art from them. Unsurprisingly this hasn’t happened.
The ARC was a desperate, last-minute idea which I hoped would pull all of the antiques trade together in each doing a little to help.
I still hope that will be the case and once it’s shown the need is there, that Government will ultimately be made to act and give it a physical home alongside the resources it needs to do its vital job.
Until then I would like every auctioneer to consider the cardboard box. Put a cardboard box in the corner of the office. When a customer comes in with unwanted antique ivory which would otherwise be binned or the ivory removed, place it in there. From experience so far it will probably not even be once a month.
Then when it’s full, parcel it up and post it off (or drop it off) to the ARC. You may never get a donation, you may only post off a box once a year, but many hands will make light work and at once the entire country will be covered for any unwanted antique ivory.
The more we save the greater the pressure on Government will become to address the issue. It is a long slow fightback that requires little more than a cardboard box, a quiet corner of an office and a bit of postage once or twice a year set against your tax bill as a charitable donation.
Acting together could make an enormous difference.
To download the ARC donation form visit atg.news/ARCform
Michael Baggott, Silver dealer