Critical Thinking: Ivory

Glenn Adamson Opinion

Miniature of Gilbert Stuart by Sarah Goodridge (or Goodrich; 1853–1878), 1825–1827. Watercolor on ivory with woven human hair, 1 7/8 by 1 5/8 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., bequest of Mary Elizabeth Spencer.

On April 30 the government of Kenya staged the largest ivory burn in history. An astonishing 105 tons of tusk went up in flames, in an attempt to discourage the poaching that has been decimating Africa’s elephant population. The gesture was also aimed at the worldwide market for these materials, much of it in Asia.

The ivory problem is a difficult one, not because anyone in public office thinks poaching should be legalized, but because opinions range on what to do about it. The recent ivory burn in Kenya was the biggest to date, but there have been many others, both there and in other African countries. Supporters say they send a message. Critics say that destroying so much ivory only serves to drive up prices, making the black market that much more attractive.

What does this all have to do with antiques? Well, plenty. As any dealer or museum curator knows, it has become extremely difficult to ship objects with ivory— even tiny amounts of it—across international borders. It is possible (if bureaucratically onerous) to obtain a CITES license for an object if it is old enough—lawfully imported before 1990 in the case of African elephants, before 1975 for the Asian species. Even so, the laws against the trafficking of ivory (as well as a few other endangered materials, such as coral, rare woods, and rhino horn) are ever present to many specialists in our field. 

In 2014, according to the informative website, the U. S. government began implementing an “intensified African ivory ban.” These rules make it “practically impossible to import or export antique elephant ivory,” and “shifts the burden of proving an exemption to the importer, exporter or seller, so if necessary paperwork does not exist, the ivory is presumed to be illegal.” Even more restrictive laws have been recently under consideration by President Obama’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking. One can imagine a near future in which even possession of undocumented antique ivory is a legal risk to the owner—such a law is currently under consideration in Connecticut. 

America can be a strange place. The ivory handle on an old Colt revolver is much more tightly regulated than the parts of the gun that can actually kill. In these debates about ivory, older artifacts are arbitrarily swept up into a current political conflict, and for those of us in museums and in the antiques trade the legislation can be frustrating indeed. 

There is a silver lining, however. The situation encourages new thoughts about the artifacts already in our care, and makes them feel relevant in ways they otherwise might not. When we look at miniature paintings from the early nineteenth century, for example, we don’t typically have elephantine bloodbaths on our minds. But that is indeed part of their history. Consider the portrait of Gilbert Stuart by Sarah Goodridge (or Goodrich) shown here. Like almost all miniatures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is painted on a thin oval sheet of ivory, backed with paper and sealed in a metal and glass case. 

Goodridge’s miniature is interesting to the contemporary viewer for reasons besides its materiality; for one thing, the artist herself is fascinating. She is probably best known today for the stillshocking miniature painting called Beauty Revealed, a depiction of her own bare white breasts. (Made as a lover’s intimate gift to the politician Daniel Webster, it is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) But Goodridge’s work went far beyond that. She has been beautifully described in these pages as Boston’s “preeminent portrait miniaturist,” whose portraits are “small miracles of illumination, transcendent reckonings of wistfulness and desire that go beyond mere biography.” 

The miniature is also fascinating because of its subject. Gilbert Stuart, though he looks somewhat starchy in Goodridge’s rendition, is as iconic as early American painters come, having created the image of George Washington that adorns our dollar bill. Also noteworthy is the fact that he added to Goodridge’s depiction a braid of his own hair, intertwined with that of his wife, when he presented the painting to his mother in 1827. As most readers of ANTIQUES will be well aware, this sort of gesture was common in the nineteenth century, particularly in circumstances of mourning, and was considered an entirely appropriate means of remembrance. 

In the flickering light of Kenya’s ivory burn, however, it takes on a very different character. While the hair is a token of memory, an emotional focal point, another bodily trace has been completely effaced in the object: that of the great animal whose sliced tusk lies directly underneath the painted portrait. If we react differently to these two different fragmentary remains, that speaks not only to our contrasting attitudes toward human and animal life, but also to our tendency to pay attention only to certain aspects of an object’s history, to the exclusion of other, more difficult narratives.

Antiques have many stories bound up in them. Most are entirely positive—breakthroughs in technology, stunning aesthetic achievements, rich testimony of past ways of living. Others are not so pleasant to consider. But they should be part of the picture too, and it may even be that these difficult narratives are more meaningful to contemporary viewers. Besieged as we are with contentious voices in the media and in our politics, which collectively promote an ongoing sense of urgent crisis, we seem to be losing track of our own history. 

Antiques cannot fix those problems, but they can offer an important prompt to self-reflection, and a means of holding attention. Debates about African animal parts being sold to unscrupulous Asian clients may seem rather distant, yet they are very much intertwined with America’s own past. Goodridge, Stuart, the merchants in Ivoryton, indeed all nineteenth-century Americans, treated ivory as a raw material. They gave little thought to its animal source. In those days, of course, elephants were not endangered. Even so, it is good to remember that the people who made and used ivory objects in the past had something in common with today’s poachers, who also see elephants only as an economic resource. 

It may feel uncomfortable to incorporate this kind of critical thinking into our understanding of antique artifacts. But if we don’t, we miss a big part of what they can tell us. Encouraging legislators and the public at large to be more aware of the past, in all of its aspects, can only help produce more thoughtful dialogue. When we ignore the difficult issues that arise from old objects, we risk consigning them to irrelevance. Antiques deserve better than that. 

In this new column for The Magazine ANTIQUES, Glenn Adamson discusses antiques in the light of contemporary cultural debates. Adamson is a curator and theorist who works across the fields of design, craft, and contemporary art. He was the director of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, until March 2016 and was previously head of research at the V&A, and curator of the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee.