Banning ivory: A nuanced approach needed

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

What began as a well-intentioned effort to halt the wanton slaughter of elephants has resulted in sweeping restrictions on the U.S. trade in elephant ivory.  As part of the Obama administration’s broader strategy to combat wildlife trafficking, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on February 11 announced new regulations prohibiting all imports, even antiques made partly or entirely of the material. The rules, say dealers in historic works of art, denigrate cultural heritage while failing to stop poachers, who will likely find ready markets for ivory elsewhere in the world.

The regulations also limit exports to objects that are demonstrably one hundred years or older, apparently preventing an American dealer or institution from selling an inlaid Ruhlmann cabinet of 1926 to a European client. Selling documented antique ivory across state lines remains lawful, as does intrastate trade in objects imported lawfully prior to 1990 or 1975, depending on whether the ivory is African or Asian in origin. In all cases, the burden of proof falls heavily on the importer, exporter or seller. Vocal minorities in the United States and Britain are urging a total ban on ivory sales.

Environmentalists are hailing the recent ruling, called “a timely and welcome move” by the New York Times.  Free traders see government overreach in a “counterproductive” policy that treats “virtually every antique collector, dealer, and auctioneer in America– and anyone who happens to own a piece of ivory — as a criminal.”

The bewildered public just wants to know what to do with an inherited portrait miniature, netsuke or string of beads for which paperwork, if it ever existed, no longer survives.

Many see values plummeting if American auctions houses, which already have stated policies declining a range of objects and materials, become more selective in what they sell. Museums may cease to acquire and scholars to publish.

“The catch-22 is what happens to people who brought these pieces in legally and now can’t sell them,” says consultant and former Sotheby’s executive Barbara Deisroth, an expert in modern design.

American exhibitors heading for the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht in March must decide whether to bring or buy antique ivory. “This is a very serious problem. Except for one piece, all my ivories are in Europe. I can’t bring them home even though they are thoroughly documented, often with provenance going back centuries. What we need, for lack of a better word, is a passport that travels with an object in perpetuity,” says Tony Blumka, a TEFAF exhibitor and leading specialist in medieval, Renaissance and baroque works of art. State law already requires Blumka and other New York dealers to have ivory licenses and to register every piece in their inventories.

The eight-member taskforce that recommended the policy had only one member with ties to the marketplace, eBay executive Tod Cohen. The National Antique and Art Dealers Association, the Antique and Art Dealers League of America, and other trade groups are scrambling to respond.

“That beautiful 1947 Steinway might be worthless now unless you replace the keys.  I understand the government’s position but we need to find a balanced solution that preserves wildlife and cultural heritage,” says NAADA president James McConnaughy.

“Register every last piece of ivory and start today. But don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” says League president Clinton Howell, who has blogged about the issue.

London dealer Martin Levy is urging his colleagues to speak up.  “All of us who care about the history of art, education, and the aesthetic value of these artifacts now being so derided, and feel equally strongly about the protection of endangered species, must say so,” says the director of H. Blairman & Sons.

 Two events planned by the non-profit Committee for Cultural Policy may provide the opportunity.  Experts are gathering for an April 10 symposium at Cardozo Law School  in New York  to discuss a proposal to reform U.S. law and policy relating to the international exchange of cultural property. At the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on April 30, past and present directors of the Walters Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Getty Museum will join attorneys Michael McCullough, Kate Fitz Gibbon and Andrew Adler in a roundtable discussion on U.S. cultural property policy, law and the public interest. Their aim is to identify practical steps to rationalize and clarify laws that create uncertainty for collectors, public and private.

Time remains to reshape the law. Fish and Wildlife is still clarifying the definition of antique and will publish a proposed or interim final rule for public comment by the end of June.

Top: “État” Cabinet by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (French 1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory; height 50 1/4, width 33 3/4, depth  14 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Edward C. Moore Jr. Gift, 1925.

Above: Double wrist rest, Chinese, mid-twentieth century. Carved ivory and polychrome; length 10 1/2 inches. Photograph courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Cincinnati, Ohio.