Ban on ivory trade has art world thrown into a quandary
18th-century ‘masterpiece’ cabinet by Thomas Chippendale had its ivory inlay removed and refitted with plastic substitute
The number of elephants in the wild is believed to have declined by almost a third in the past decadec
“An act of desecration” is how one UK antiques dealer reacted to the news that an 18th-century cabinet by Thomas Chippendale had its ivory inlay removed and refitted with a plastic substitute before being offered for sale at Christie’s this summer.
When it last appeared at auction in 1991 the commode became the most expensive piece of English furniture ever sold, fetching a record £935,000. In July it became the star lot in Christie’s Chippendale sale, hailed as a “true masterpiece of English furniture” and carrying a guide price of £3 million to £5 million.
Then it emerged that in order to comply with a US ban on ivory trading, the American vendor had replaced the ivory alphabet which adorned the cabinet’s interior pigeon-holes with man-made ivorine. The cabinet failed to sell.
There was an immediate outcry in the UK, where the government is currently considering a similar ban to that which Barack Obama introduced in the US in 2016. The resident expert on the BBC show Fake or Fortune, Philip Mould, said: “This is what many of us have dreaded. It is a glimpse of the horrors to come.”
The chairman of the Chippendale Society, Dr Adam Bowen, said: “I don’t think it will be an easy problem to resolve, but I doubt very much whether replacing ivory with plastic has done anything to further the cause of elephants in Africa and India.”
According to conservationists some 20,000 animals are killed every year – often in an outlandishly brutal manner – in order to meet the contemporary global demand for ivory. The number of elephants in the wild is believed to have declined by almost a third in the past decade.
The law as it stands at present, both here and in the UK, bans the sale of raw elephant ivory but allows unrestricted trade in objects worked before 1947. Under the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), pieces made after 1947 must have a certificate.
China and Hong Kong have followed the US in introducing a total ban. However, a 2017 CITES study showed that between 2010 and 2015 the UK was the largest exporter of legal ivory in the world. The British secretary of state for the environment, Michael Gove, has described the trade in ivory as “abhorrent” and promised to implement one of the world’s toughest bans. No legislation has yet been forthcoming, but draft proposals suggest that the new laws will incorporate a number of exemptions, including those for museum pieces and antiques.
Auctioneers, antique dealers and museums say that a total ban would penalise dealers and decimate collections of public art.
“We take our corporate social responsibility seriously,” says Philip Sheppard of Sheppard’s Auction House in Durrow, Co Laois. “We will not sell modern ivory or unworked tusks of any age, and unreservedly condemn the slaughter of elephants for illegal elephant ivory.
“Our specialists carry out stringent due diligence on the provenance of objects to ensure that illegal ivory cannot be sold at Sheppard’s. We sell historic objects of cultural and artistic importance, some of which contain ivory or are made wholly of ivory. In selling historic cultural objects which incorporate ivory, we meet all legal requirements and operate strictly in accordance with the CITES international convention.
“Sheppard’s adheres to the clear legal distinction between the antique objects of cultural and artistic value and the unacceptable, illegal market for new ivory. We believe that the sale of these culturally significant works of art does not contribute to the current illegal elephant ivory trade.”
Asked for his feelings about ivory, Robin O’Donnell, Ireland’s leading organiser of antique fairs, said: “I wish I could find every piece of it and bury it in a big hole. My own feeling on ivory is, I completely totally and utterly despise it. I am a member of an amazing Facebook site called Talking Antiques, with 80,000 members worldwide, where the sale or talk of ivory is banned. I admire them for this, and I think this should be the norm.”
However, he added: “My fear of a total ban is that it just might send it underground, and just might make it even more sought after and more valuable.”
At a time when sales of endangered species are booming on the Dark Net, this is a fear shared by many. It looks as though the question of ivory will for now remain as complex as it is unresolved.