Balthasar Permoser, workshop, Sleeping Venus with Amor, last quarter of the 17th century, ivory, 7.8 x 17.4 x 6.8 cm

The threat of a trade prohibition on ivory in Great Britain and possible knock-on effects in the EU

Ivory, gained from the tusks of an elephant, is a raw material that has been used since time immemorial to create items for everyday use and works of art. Up until the 19th century, the hunting of elephants was particularly dangerous due to their size and their defensive nature. Ivory was a rare and expensive material that had to travel a long distance before it could be sold in Europe and was considered as valuable as gold.

Ivory in the middle age

In the medieval Christian world ivory was seen as one of the most noble of materials – not least of all since its beauty was praised so highly in the ‘Song of Songs’: “Your neck is like an ivory tower” (7:4). ‘White gold’ was only placed in the hands of the most skilled artists. They created a multitude of religious objects that included reliquary chests, liturgical combs, crucifixes and book covers, among other items. In the 14th century, small altarpieces in the form of diptychs for private devotional use or when travelling were particularly fashionable in Paris. The large number of such works to have survived to this day testifies to this. Ivory carving experienced its second heyday in the 17th century. The focus of attention was then placed on the beauty of the polished object. This very dense material with its warm shimmer is easy to carve and was very popular among leading sculptors. Delicately worked figures, reliefs, ornamental vessels and skillfully turned objects for princely cabinets of curiosities were created. Ivory works of art advanced to become worldly status symbols.


What changed in the 19th century

In the 19th century, modern weapons facilitated the hunt of these mighty creatures. The large quantity of ivory that was then available enabled the industrial mass production of everyday objects in addition to its use for works of art. Demand grew and the decimation of elephants in Asia and Africa, with all its associated problems, found its beginning. Up to 800 tons of ivory were imported every year; this corresponds to the slaughter of 800,000 animals. Today, both the Asian as well as the African elephant are threatened by extinction – a dramatic development which has to be stopped on an international level in a united effort, as trading with ivory is no longer merely limited to the countries of origin but is part of an international network.

Greed for white gold has led to an uncontrolled trade in ivory and to poaching. Ivory is considered a status symbol, especially in Asia where ground ivory is sold as an expensive aphrodisiac.


Against criminal sale of endangered species

To stem the criminal sale of endangered species of animals and plants, the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was passed in 1973 and came into force in 1975. Depending on the degree to which a particular species was threatened, its commercial trade was completely banned unless authorisation by the country in question had been given.

On 17 October 1989, 177 states signed a global trade prohibition for ivory at the Washington conference on the protection of endangered species. Through the Council Regulation (EC) No. 338/97, the Washington Convention became legally binding within the European Union on 3 March 1997. The Council Regulation refers to trading with the product. Both the Asian and the African elephant are listed as having the highest level of protection. Since then, international trade in ivory and other ivory products for commercial purposes has been banned. One exception to this marketing ban on ivory within the EU is for antiques. An antique is defined as any work produced prior to 1 June 1947. No sales certificate is required for the sale of such antiques within the EU.

A number of different exceptions to this regulation have, however, undermined the agreement made in 1989. The protected status placed on the elephant population in Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, for instance, was relaxed in 1997 and 2000 after numbers had recovered once again in these countries in southern Africa. It is permitted to export tusks as non-commercial hunting trophies and antique ivory can be traded legally. One of the largest unregulated ivory markets in South East Asia is in Thailand. The sale of the tusks of native and domesticated elephants, and those that have died a natural death, is allowed. This loophole is used to smuggle illegal African ivory into the country that can then be declared as Thai ivory.


Great Britain plans the strictest ivory law within the EU

Great Britain is now planning to pass the strictest ivory law within the EU. Surveys have shown that a large majority of British citizens are in favour of such a ban. This draft bill is being pushed by the Conservative politicians Boris Johnson and the Environment Secretary of State, Michael Gove. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is demanding that no legal market for ivory be allowed, not even for antique ivory. A market that is not transparent cannot send the consumer an entirely transparent moral signal. No consideration whatsoever is given to the fact that a medieval ivory object such as a chess piece or a netsuke – a carved, Japanese toggle used as a fastener – was created within a completely different environmental and historical context in comparison to the mass produced ivory items of our times. Great Britain deliberately intends to renounce trading with these art objects as the sale of antique ivory artworks would, as such, fundamentally awaken a desire to own such items and ultimately lead to the poaching of elephants.

One example of an intelligent and enlightened way to deal with ivory has been demonstrated by the Bode Museum in Berlin. The curator of the sculpture department, Dr. Julien Chapuis, writes. “It is our role to draw the public’s attention to the eradication of elephants in Africa and Asia. At the same time, we have a duty and responsibility as collectors of cultural and art historical objects from the past. As a museum, one has to be aware of both responsibilities.”

The British Department of the Environment, on the other hand, hopes that the ivory ban will help save the Asian and African elephant and be taken up by other countries on the Continent. This is to be questioned as the greatest demand for fresh ivory is not in Europe but in Asia. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the sale of illegal ivory is through international criminal syndicates.

What is at the base of the British draft bill that is being discussed with such intensity? Only ivory objects created before 1918 that are of exceptional artistic, cultural or historical value may be traded. Such items will be given a ‘passport’ that can only be issued by a qualified museum curator. The example given for this exception to the rule is a figure of Christ from the 12th century in the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Very few objects will be able to meet such select criteria.

The possession of ivory that is already in private ownership or in a museum or gallery is not an offence, unlike its sale on the domestic market, its import or export. One clause, however, permits the sale of ivory objects that do not meet the requirements stipulated in the exemption, namely to museums. There would, therefore, no longer be any market competition and this would lead to a serious drop in the value of objects. In the Antique Trade Gazette of 21 April 2018, the British art dealer Sylvie Collett quite rightfully asks what compensation the government intends to pay to collectors and dealers who, at the moment, legally buy and sell ivory artworks dating from the past few centuries.


What is the ´de minimis´ solution?

Another ‘de minimis’ solution has also been included in the draft bill, according to which music instruments made before 1947 are only permitted to be 20% of ivory, objects made before 1947, however, only 10%. Every object that falls within the ‘de minimis’ rule has to be registered online, upon payment of a fee, with the Animal and Plant Health Authority.

Robert Kless, head of the animal welfare organisation IFAW in Germany, calls for the German government and the EU to follow the example set by the British and to “close markets for ivory for good.” The French Enviroment Secretary, Ségolène Royal, has already responded to this call. On 30 April this year, she announced a complete ban on the trade of ivory in France and the overseas territories. She also wants to back an EU-wide trade ban.


Let´s make a difference…

A certain perplexity has arisen in the face of such proposed changes to the law which make no provisions for any alternatives. This would mean it would no longer be possible to sell any of the delicate and exquisitely beautiful artworks that testify to art centres that have since long vanished, such as Japanese netsukes – one thinks automatically of the family collection that Edmund de Waal brought to life so vividly in his book ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ – as well as medievel French diptychs, contrefait objects from princely cabinets of curiosities and many other things. It therefore seems more than absurd to sacrifice part of our cultural heritage by supporting a general trade prohibition that does not differentiate between antique and modern ivory, although a more radical approach against the barbaric poaching of elephants in the 21st century is certainly more than justified. What speaks against the perfectly reasonable existing regulations that permit the sale of ivory works of art made before 1947 on the open market? Carved ivory can, after all, be dated without any great difficulty.