Don’t live in an ivory tower: here’s the latest on the UK ivory ban

Posted on: April 13, 2018 by

A few months ago we discussed here the restrictions on the ivory trade in the UK and the changes that were brewing following a wide-reaching public consultation issued by the British government. As a result, the ivory trade in the UK is virtually banned, apart from five stringently-regulated exceptions.

Following over 70,000 responses, it is safe to say that stakeholders far and wide made their views known. On one end were the environmental activists, concerned with the endangerment of elephant species and actively engaged in promoting a change to the current regulations. On the other were art market agents, mostly dealers, who vociferously claimed that further restrictions would kill the ivory market in the UK and cause considerable financial loss. Somewhat in the middle were the museums and other institutions who hold considerable amounts of ivory-based objects in their collections and are unsure how to approach the increasingly complicated ethical dilemma of how to display these objects and whether to make further acquisitions of like objects.

No small coincidence, in the same week that the results of the consultation were publicised and the new changes announced, a record was broken in Northamptonshire when a mammoth tusk of a ‘mammoth’ length (2.2 metres), with extensive carvings, was sold for £38,500. The intensive bidding war at Humbert & Ellis Auctioneers engaged prospective buyers from all over the world. As the BBC reported, the tusk is from a woolly mammoth, a species that went extinct thousands of years ago. The tusk had been largely worked, with extensive 19thcentury carvings having been made in China, depicting 33 individual figures, each with its own individual features, thus bringing it within regulations permitting trade in pre-1947 worked ivory.

If anything, this example shows that the interest in ivory is certainly not dying down.

Regardless of buyers’ interest, however, following these proposed changes the UK is set to have one of the world’s toughest restrictions on the ivory trade. Nonetheless, to pacify ivory buyers somewhat, and perhaps to complicate the regulations further, there are five exemptions to the proposed ban:

  • a de minimis rule according to which items containing less than 10% of their volume in ivory and made pre-1947 are allowed. The question remains as to how one can precisely calculate said percentage. Moreover, it seems that the issue of post-1947 ivory being sold off as pre-1947 will not be tackled by these changes.
  • Another quantity and age exemption concerns musical instruments: a maximum volume of 20% and a threshold date of pre-1975 will be in place. But then again, how do you calculate the percentage volume of a curvy musical instrument’s handle, for example?
  • Portrait miniatures will have a threshold of their own, being exempted if they were produced prior to 100 years before the ban comes into force. This is particularly useful given that these miniatures were often painted directly on ivory, but are not considered to be valued for their ivory content.
  • Museums will also have their own rules, through which they remain free to buy, borrow, or exchange objects containing ivory. While there are certain constraints on this exemption (only accredited museums will be covered and any acquisitions must be in line with their acquisitions and ethical policies) it does mean that from a legal standpoint, museums will be among the bodies with the loosest requirements when it comes to ivory. Compliance with wider ethical obligations, as set out in the UK Museums Association Code of Ethics and elsewhere will thus be crucial in the context of any dealings involving ivory.
  • Any antique (i.e. produced at least 100 years prior to the ban coming into force) containing ivory, so long as it is assessed as meeting these two criteria: (A) that it is of ‘outstandingly high artistic, cultural, or historical value’ and (B) that the object is an example of ‘one of the rarest and most important item of their type’. Nonetheless, to prevent a sudden flurry of ‘outstanding’ and ‘rarest’ antiques onto the market, only selected museums will be able to judge whether an exemption is deserved, for which they will rely on experts ‘with the greatest knowledge’.

With all of these variations and exemptions, one does wonder whether the man on the street will know how to deal with the new regulations when buying a birthday gift for grandma. Joking aside, the previous 1947 threshold already seemed complicated enough: it’s safe to say that most people were probably unaware of the cut-off date and its significance. Naturally, museums and other conscientious collectors were already upholding the previous threshold, but then again, these are not the buyers for whom the new regulations were considered to be required. All in all, it does seem that the ivory business will soon be reserved only to experts ‘with the greatest knowledge’ – those who inevitably remain high up in their ivory towers.

Image: The record-breaking mammoth tusk sold through Humbert & Ellis Auctioneers