A Japanese netsuke of a coiled dragon in ivory (c1800), to be exhibited at Tefaf Maastricht
A Japanese netsuke of a coiled dragon in ivory (c1800), to be exhibited at Tefaf Maastricht © Max Rutherston

Antique dealers and museum curators have attacked a proposed US ban on American commercial trade in objects made of elephant ivory as a philistine wrecking act. They claim certain provisions in the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking will have a drastic impact on exhibitions, scholarship and the trade in antique masterpieces, while doing nothing to stop the slaughter of an endangered species.

The warning was sounded by art experts after the US government announced in February that it would no longer allow commercial imports of African ivory of any age, including antiques – which were previously exempt. Domestic and export trade will also now be limited to artefacts more than 100 years old.

A White House statement of February 11 reads: “Given the unparalleled …threats to both African elephants and rhinos …a nearly complete ban on …horn trade is the best way to ensure that US domestic markets do not contribute to the decline of these species.” Hillary Clinton, the former US secretary of state, warned that poaching and trafficking had become “more lucrative and more ruthless”, with poachers using sophisticated weapons and communications, and sometimes even killing park rangers.

The black market for “white gold” has expanded since the ban on ivory harvesting was imposed in 1989 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the regulations are generally believed to be poorly enforced. Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warned that poachers could wipe out a fifth of Africa’s elephants in the next decade, and the UN estimates that the illegal ivory trade has tripled in the last decade.

Carved ivory goblet (1680s) by Balthasar Griessman
Carved ivory goblet (1680s) by Balthasar Griessman © J Paul Getty Museum

In an effort to stop the massacre of thousands of elephants each year, the new rules will revoke the previous exemptions for antique ivory. But the art world points out that antique ivories – often carved with virtuosity centuries ago – came from tusks that were gathered from elephant “cemeteries”, and created when these magnificent creatures roamed the plains of African and Asia in their millions. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that there were some 5m elephants in Africa until the 1930s, numbers that have dwindled by at least 50 per cent.

No art lover wants elephants to suffer, but curators and dealers oppose the new ban on two counts. The first is that since almost all the artefacts in question were made decades ago, it would have little or no effect on the slaughter of elephants at present or in the future. The second is that it would hinder art historical and curatorial work, as well as the antiques market.

Some feel that museums will be deterred from acquiring artworks seen as tainted under the proposed legislation. James Cuno, president of the J Paul Getty Trust, whose ivory holdings include a 1680s goblet – a tour de force of carving – feels that “it would inhibit our appreciation …of these antique objects” and their cultural role.

Martin Levy of Blairman’s, a leading London dealer, says: “The impact on scholarship, museum collections, private collectors – not to mention on commerce – would be huge and pointless.”

Art experts are astonished that the legislation would at the same time allow imports of “elephant sport-hunted trophies” at “two per hunter per year”. New York dealer Scott Defrin mocks what he sees as double standards: “They’ll allow hunters to bring home trophies from Africa,” he says, “ …but not antiques!”

His antique ivory sales to museums have included a 17th-century St Sebastian to the Metropolitan in New York. These pieces aren’t blood-covered tusks, Defrin says: “They were made hundreds of years ago.”

Max Rutherston, a London specialist in Japanese art, will be showing a delicate 1800s netsuke of a coiled dragon among fine ivories at Maastricht. He is upset at being vilified for dealing in beautiful artefacts from “a time when no one knew better”. He condemns the US government’s solution as “iconoclastic”.

US legislation on the international and domestic trade in elephant ivory has long been notoriously bureaucratic. Art specialists had urged change, but nothing like this. They wanted “passports” for individual pieces, rather than a complex system that involves a series of licence applications and six-month delays for approval. Dealers fear that the US legislation will be replicated in Europe, killing the trade completely.

Ivory relief portrait (1704-16) of Sir John Houblon by David Le Marchand
Ivory relief portrait (1704-16) of Sir John Houblon by David Le Marchand © Daniel Katz

Stuart Lochhead of leading London dealer Daniel Katz will be in Maastricht with an ivory relief by David Le Marchand, England’s greatest ivory carver – a 1700s portrait probably of Sir John Houblon, then governor of the Bank of England, “believed to be” priced at around £650,000. He calls the proposed ban “a knee-jerk reaction”.

New Yorker Anthony Blumka deals in the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods, when ivory was the preferred material for church and royalty. At Maastricht he will exhibit a 14th-century diptych with scenes of the Passion of Christ. He fears that restrictions will drive the trade underground: “A collector is not going to stop wanting what he craves,” he warns.

The art world is all the more unnerved because the US ban coincides with reports in the British press that Prince William had told primatologist Jane Goodall that he wants ivory antiques in the Royal Collection destroyed and that Prince Charles, his father, has requested their removal from his homes. A spokesman for the prince refused to confirm or deny a private conversation.

Critics also point to the irony of Prince William’s pledge to save wildlife coinciding with a hunting trip with his brother Harry. The wild boar and stags they hunted are not endangered, but the animal blood on the princes’ hands did not help their cause.

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