Earlier this month, the British government announced that it would be placing a ban on the sale of any items created out of ivory. This ban would leave a massive amount of unsellable antiques in its wake. Exactly when this legislation will be brought before Parliament has not been revealed.
In a statement, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that the goal of this new measure is to protect elephants. In 2017, 20,000 elephants were slaughtered for their ivory, according to the department. China promised to shut down its commercial trade of ivory last year.
In 2016, the United States announced a nearly total ban on the trade of African elephants. Similarly, to the US, the British ban will also have a few exemptions. According to The New York Times, “These will require permits, available for a fee from the government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency. It will be possible to trade items containing less than 10 percent ivory, provided they were made before 1947. The same applies to musical instruments with less than 20 percent ivory, made before 1975, and to portrait miniatures on ivory more than 100 years old. Exemptions will also apply — and this is the proposed legislation’s grayest area — to the ‘rarest and most important items of their type,’ if they are at least 100 years old. Again, these items will have to be registered with the Animal and Plant Health Agency, which will then seek advice from a museum on whether to issue a permit for sale.”
The 2015 pre-election pledge by the Conservative government to instate a total ban on ivory sales has been revised after consultations. Despite the modifications, the British antiques industry is still in disarray over the proposed legislation.
A partner at the London-based dealership Finch & Co., which specializes in unusual objects from across the globe, often including pieces made of ivory, Jan Finch told The Times, “We can trade at the top end, but for someone starting out or people in the middle market, this is a total disaster.”
The maximum of 10 percent for ivory-decorated antiques is believed by Finch and others in the British art and antiques trade, to be much too low. She would also like to know how the stated criteria of “rarest and most important” will actually be applied in the real world of trade.
Finch added that “A whole load of stuff will be illegal.” This includes simple everyday items like jewelry boxes and chess sets, which will no longer be sellable or available for export.
So, how will one determine which items will qualify as the “rarest and most important?”
London-based specialist dealer in Japanese netsuke carvings, Max Rutherston, told The Times that the Animal and Plant Health Agency “could decide to establish a bar that’s too high. If I’m offered a great piece, how do I know it’s going to get a sales permit?”
155 ivory netsukes are in Rutherston’s stock at the moment. 130 of these carvings are being offered on the behalf of his clients. The prices for these ivory items range from around $350 to a whopping approximate $64,000.
Rutherston is now considering moving his business out of Britain since he doesn’t know what percentage of his stock will be eligible for government-issued sales permits. Many other antique dealers may follow in suit and leave Britain, bringing their money and business with them. However, protecting the existence of the largest land animals alive on earth should be priceless and well worth losing a few dollars over.
By Rachel Shapiro