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    Follow the Stories | Chattanooga, Tennessee (2009)

    The Ins and Outs of Owning Ivory

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    Posted: 3.30.09

    Marybeth Keene appraised a miniature portrait on ivory of the Revolutionary War General William Colfax, ca. 1785, in Corpus Christi.

    image of Chinese ivory carvings

    Also in Chattanooga, Lark Mason appraised a collection of ca. 1950 Chinese ivory carvings, which included these two figures, at $3,000 to $5,000.

    image of Burmese ivory tusk

    In San Diego, Eric Silver appraised this Dieppe Ivory Carving, ca. 1880, at $3,000 to $4,000.

    Editor's Note — 1.21.2013: Originally posted in 2009, this article gives a handy overview of the rules governing the importing, owning, and selling of ivory.

    Ivory has been a supremely desirable material for thousands of years of craftsmen: it is hard, yet easy to carve; it takes a handsome polish; and its luster deepens with age. It is effectively immortal. But like many other Americans who eye the ivory on their mantelpiece with anxiety, David from Doltewah, Tennessee, a guest at the Chattanooga ROADSHOW in July 2008, was unsure of the legal status of the carved ivory articles passed to him from his uncle. Certainly they are beautiful and exhibit formidable craftsmanship, but it can be difficult to enjoy an artifact that may have been produced at the cost of an endangered animal, particularly one as totemic as the elephant.

    Can you? Should you? ... A brief guide to the complicated subject of importing, owning, and selling elephant ivory

    Thanks to the heightened ecological awareness evident in the last half of the 20th century, elephant populations are now protected by a number of international conventions, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES); U.S. federal laws, such as the Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed in 1973, and the African Elephant Conservation Act (AECA) passed in 1989; and an array of state laws. After decades of nearly catastrophic poaching, as well as the legal harvesting of elephant ivory that took place before any laws were on the books, many elephant populations are now stabilizing. (At least in Africa — the smaller, Asian elephant, found in India and surrounding countries, is still endangered.)

    All this regulation has perhaps saved elephants from extinction. But the overlapping jurisdictions — and resulting regulatory labyrinth — can create more confusion than clarity for a collector who wishes to sell ivory, or understand its legal status. For example, "raw" ivory is more tightly controlled than "worked," or carved, ivory; and ivory sourced from Africa is subject to different regulations than that from Asia, even though in practice it can be impossible to distinguish between the two types.

    So when is a family heirloom contraband? The regulatory regime has been pretty successful, says Kevin Garlick, a law enforcement agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so chances are good that any ivory you may have at home is legal to own. But it may not be legal to export, or even to sell across state lines. Any reputable ivory dealer should possess the relevant documentation, or at least be able to advise a customer on the legal status of ivory he or she is selling; but ultimately it is the collector's responsibility to assemble the historical documentation needed to establish provenance.

    At a Glance: Ivory Guidelines
    In an attempt to put together the following overview of legal issues relevant to the ownership and sale of ivory, we talked to Garlick, Willem Wijnsteker at CITES, and Lark Mason, a longtime ROADSHOW appraiser who specializes in Asian arts.

    DISCLAIMER: We have slightly simplified some of the federal government's requirements and definitions in order to provide an at-a-glance guide to a complicated area of the law. State laws on ivory vary widely, so if your goal is to confirm that your own ivory is legal, consider this guide a starting point rather than the final word.

    Establishing Provenance
    Unfortunately, there is no official "ivory certification board," nor can collectors simply show up at a Fish and Wildlife office to have their ivory assessed. Provenance is best established by assembling a paper trail, in the form of import records and bills of sale. For instance, another guest at the Chattanooga ROADSHOW, Kris from Humboldt, Tennessee, explained to Asian-arts appraiser James Callahan that he was lucky enough to have a record of an appraisal of his ivory conducted in 1922, another acceptable form of documentation.

    In general, these are the facts that are important in the eyes of the law:

    • the country of origin
    • the country of export
    • the year in which the ivory was imported
    • the specific port through which the ivory entered the U.S.
    • whether the ivory is from an African or an Asian elephant
    • whether the ivory is raw or worked
    • the age of the ivory object at the time of import into the U.S.

    Finally, if you don't intend to travel with or sell your ivory, it is probably not necessary to establish all the above. Says Mason, "There are no 'Rockefeller' ivory laws. You're not going to have the ivory police come in and haul you off." But if you do not wish to have your family's heirloom added to the heap of ivory confiscated by customs officials each year — much of which is not even necessarily illegal, only undocumented — forewarned is forearmed.

    For more on elephant conservation and the owning and selling of ivory, see:
    Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) The Web site of CITES, with specifics on signatory countries and how the Convention works.
    Endangered Species Act (U.S. Code: Title 16, Ch. 35) Text of the of the federal ESA statute, on the Web site of the Cornell University Legal Information Institute.
    African Elephant Conservation Act (U.S. Code: Title 16, Ch. 62) Text of the of the federal AECA statute, on the Web site of the Cornell University Legal Information Institute.
    U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Division of International Conservation A government Web site with information about the Fish & Wildlife Service's species conservation programs.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Asian Arts category:
    Owning Animal-Derived Objects (Tulsa, 2012)
    How to Date an Old Horse... (San Antonio, 2008)
    Cloisonné (What's That You Say?) (Tucson, 2007)
    What Was the Boxer Rebellion? (Omaha, 2005)

    See the Chattanooga, Tennessee (2009) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    Ben Phelan is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. He has been a contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 2007.

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