The Ins and Outs of Ivory Law

© copyright 2001 Antiques Roadshow

James Callahan, Director of Asian Works of Art at Skinner Inc. and an appraiser at many a ROADSHOW, takes his seat at the Asian table. No matter which ROADSHOW James attends, guests bring as many as 50 ivory pieces to the table over the course of a day.

In St. Louis, a woman presented James with a few pieces of exquisite ivory carved in Japan in the late 19th century. James said that the distinct fine grain in the ivory revealed that it was made from elephant tusk, one of the many sources of ivory that carvers have used through the centuries. After this show, and other times ivory has been shown on the ROADSHOW, our viewers have asked: When is it legal to buy and sell ivory, and what are the ethical issues surrounding ivory sale?

To explore these questions, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW contacted two ivory experts—James and Lark Mason from Sotheby's in New York—and Craig Hoover of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an environmentalist involved in protecting endangered species. Here's what they told us.

"There's no question that elephant populations in Africa and Asia have been severely impacted by poaching and illegal trade in ivory," said Craig, a senior program officer with Traffic North America, the WWF wildlife trade-monitoring program. "If you're buying illegal ivory knowingly or unknowingly, you're contributing to the endangerment of a species."

The ivory laws and treaties passed over the last 30 years were intended to protect the poaching of endangered ivory species. Of particular concern were elephants. According to the WWF, approximately half of Africa's elephants—and as many as 80 percent in East Africa's—may have been eliminated from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. A large reason for this decimation was elephant poaching to feed international ivory demand.

Unfortunately, the regulations designed to protect these ivory species are "some of the most complex" in the area of wildlife trade, according to Craig. For example, the trade of ivory from warthog tusks is altogether legal. However, different rules regulate ivory taken from sperm and killer whales, elephants, walruses and hippos. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 made it illegal to trade the ivory teeth of sperm and killer whales, as well as the tusks of walruses, if harvested after 1972. The ivory from hippo teeth, however, is protected by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a treaty signed by more than 120 nations to eliminate illegal trade in animals and plants, in effect since 1975. Asian elephants also are controlled by CITES, but African elephants are controlled under the African Elephant Conservation Act, which forbids the importation of ivory into the United States since 1989.

All this is made even more complicated by the fact that ivory from one animal species is hard to distinguish from that of another. "Frankly, the non-expert can't discern the difference," said Lark. "Trained eyes can see distinctions, but it's not always easy." Worse yet, legal ivory is indistinguishable from illegal ivory.

But remaining careful—and caring about the consequences of the ivory trade—is still within the reach of ivory and nature lovers. When purchasing ivory, Lark and Craig both said it is always advisable to have a written statement from the seller that clearly states the ivory sold is not restricted.

"That should remove any ethical qualms the purchaser has that the object came from an illegal source," Lark explained, adding that in the rare case of an unscrupulous dealer, the written record provides the buyer legal protection. James adds that consumers should take some comfort that all reputable dealers are not going to risk the ultimate sale of an object—and the stiff penalties that can be levied—by buying ivory of "questionable origin."

Both Lark and James are disappointed that ivory laws today have frightened off ivory lovers from pursuing magnificent antique ivory pieces, which are not controlled by any of the ivory regulations. "Quality objects creatively inspired by true craftsmen were almost all made prior to World War I," Lark explained. "Afterwards, ivory became more of an assembly line process. Quality declined, objects became stiff, designs became repetitive and the execution was poor." In other words, old ivory is legal ivory, and it is the finest carved ivory on the market.

Lark pointed out that by buying or selling ivory that's an antique you're not hurting any of the elephants that environmentalists are trying to protect today. "Elephant ivory carved 100 or more years ago has no bearing on the future of elephants alive today," Lark said. "Besides, the illegal ivory carved today is of such poor quality that it would never appeal to any serious collector. It has no artistic merit."

So is antique ivory such as the Japanese ivory that aired on the St. Louis show legal to sell? Yes, it was, because all antique ivory can be bought and sold in the United States. Which is good news for all the lovers of what James called "masterpiece ivory."

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