The Antiques Trade Gazette recently published a Special Report on the proposed legislative ban on the trade of ivory in the United Kingdom. I urge anyone interested in this topic (regardless of which side of the fence you sit on) to read the report as it presents an accurate snapshot of the debate that is raging amongst the Antiques & Auction Industry (A&AI) in the U.K. about the legislation that aims to reduce, with limited exceptions, trade to only 100 year old objects and only those with a maximum ivory content of 10%.
At this point I reiterate my unwavering position on this matter, which is that the global A&AI is directly connected to the value chain that continues to drive the slaughter of elephants and that a virtual total ban in trade is the only way we will see the devaluation of ivory as a material commodity. The inherent glamour of auctions and the culturally embedded notion that collecting is a “high-pursuit” places us, in my opinion, at the very apex of that value chain.
I tried my best to read this report objectively. Below I seek to distil the arguments within this debate that I hope reflects fair-minded discourse on my part and an effort to extend my discussions in to the concerns of my policy combatants.
For me, the report highlights seven important matters and below I provide brief commentary and my views on these matters:
(i) The final agreed quantum of the De Minimis rule and just how restricted the exceptions should be
The UK legislation proposes a no more than 10% ivory content for antique pieces with restricted exceptions allowing for trade in musical instruments, miniatures and items judged to be of extraordinary historical importance (my words). Compare this to Leonard Joel’s policy, adapted from USA legislative efforts, that allows for no more than 50% by volume or value with an overarching restriction of no more than 200grams of ivory and it does appear that if the UK wants a workable De Minimis principle this element of the legislation requires refinement.
(ii) Why public museums should be able to trade and private citizens not?
Collecting, and collecting on often a grand scale, is part of British DNA, centuries old and an important element of the culture. So, it is no wonder that private collectors and the trade are up in arms as to why public museums should be more freely able to buy and sell than the private citizen. My view is that when change is required, inevitably compromises must be made and if the choice lies between allowing publicly-enjoyed museums this grace or a privately-enjoyed collection, then I think the discretion allowed to public bodies is the right one.
(iii) What a post-enactment regulatory environment might look like in the UK
Advocates for a complete ban and organisations better-versed than me in this public policy area make a very important point about regulation. The current global conventions, domestic legislative regimes and the resourcing and regulatory-infrastructure currently in place has been HOPELESSLY inadequate in ensuring that new ivory does not find its way in to the wider market place. In short, profoundly under-resourced policing bodies have enabled an A&AI to trade in all manner of ivory with scant pressure (or will) to even comply with existing laws. So why is this relevant to the UK debate? Much of the report identified concerns expressed by both the trade and private collectors about “how on earth” (my words) registration and compliance could be possibly managed with some estimated 400,000 ivory objects in their marketplace? It’s a very legitimate question but also precisely the point of many activists in this space. It is highly unlikely the A&AI or government can afford the resources necessary to truly regulate and police a market and free it from modern ivory. With this reality it seems to me that if the government or the A&AI can’t allocate sufficient revenues to create an effective regulatory environment then it shouldn’t protest the only logical alternative, which is a virtual shut-down in trade to make the management of at least exempted items possible.
(iv) The link between trade and poaching
For me this point is an article of faith; that if we trade in ivory (regardless of age) we can’t deny we are ultimately still part of ivory poaching. The A&AI argue that its trade in antique and CITES-approved objects is not connected to modern ivory sales and the slaughter of elephants and at a surface level this is technically correct. But what this argument ignores are three realities. Firstly, the A&AI sits at the apex of a value chain that glamorises ivory and legitimises the sale of it. Secondly, while we trade in ivory (regardless of age) we simply cannot argue that we don’t support and enhance the material’s value and that while value is maintained the desire to poach, for value, will continue. Finally, if we wish to be party to poorly regulated marketplaces that provide no adequate controls over the entry of modern ivory, then we can’t say we are not part of the current problem. These are the artificial constructs embraced by much of the A&AI and while somewhat understandable, they are getting in the way of real progress on this important environmental issue.
(v) The distinction between devaluation and destruction of ivory objects
In various letters to the editor, the words devaluation and destruction (and words of similar sentiment) presented regularly and somewhat interchangeably and in some cases as if to imply, that devaluation was tantamount to destruction. My concern here was this extension of the meaning of devaluation. I agree with the observation that such a ban will indeed devalue and/or render valueless much ivory currently in circulation. But to suggest that devaluation must equal destruction is simply not the case. Our own policy advocates for retention by the collector or donation to a public museum to ensure removal from the value-chain; an option open to all those with ivory items not exempted by the ban.
(vi) The A&AI’s commercial dependency on ivory
While I have not studied the U.K.’s dealerships in detail and would not be surprised if a VERY small handful of dealers were somewhat dependant on ivory sales that would not escape the legislative ban, I will confidently suggest that a very clear majority of dealers would not be remotely impacted by a cessation in ivory trade and could comfortably adapt to a De Minimis-plus-Exemptions regime. With regard to auctioneers, no doubt their Asian Art and related departments will be affected but to varying and manageable degrees. Our last Fine Asian Art Auction sourced, marketed and successfully sold an offering that had to navigate our own elephant ivory/rhino horn cessation policy. My point is, it can be done and for those very few dealers that may be more than marginally affected I would have no hesitation in supporting a once-off government compensation or phase-out scheme. Add to this the steadily declining appetite for ivory material in the decorative arts and I would suggest that whether enforced or voluntary, the move to cessation is a move that inevitably the antiques trade, for the sake of their own regeneration, will be required to embrace anyway.
(vii) The A&AI’s natural attachment to the regulatory status quo
While point (iii) above covers aspects of this issue I feel it is important to reiterate why the A&AI are largely comfortable with the status quo but equally why it is unsustainable. While no doubt many A&AI players respect CITES and their local regulations the reality is that despite this, illegal and/or modern ivory circulates within the A&AI. No laws or regulations have worked and the result is a highly liquid and opaque market place that has enabled easy passage of modern ivory passing as antique. If further proof were needed of this fact I would direct you to the joint Oxford University and Elephant Action League study: AVAAZ (July 2018) ‘Europe’s deadly ivory trade – Radiocarbon testing illegal ivory in Europe’s domestic antiques trade’ accessed at
The ATG’s Special Report is an important document that provides a voice to both the A&AI’s concerns (as it should as the publication representing the trade) but also to those advocating for the logic of the legislation and its important environmental purpose.
What I was hoping to find amongst its pages was an auctioneer in the UK, like Leonard Joel, that had once been a significant trader in ivory but was no longer – this was not to be. But I am sure that such an auctioneer or antique dealer exists (or will emerge) and what they can do, as we have in Australia, is provide comfort to the UK trade that this legislative move, now gaining global traction, will not cause the sky to fall in.
John Albrecht, Managing Director