New UK ban on antique ivory

September 21 2016

Image of New UK ban on antique ivory

Picture: V&A, John Smart, Portrait of Edward Raphael

The UK government is set to announce a new crackdown on the trade in antique ivory. The fear is that much new ivory is being sold around the world masquerading as 'antique' ivory, with obvious ramifications for dwindling African elephant numbers.

But it seems the new measures, as set out in The Times this morning, are akin to a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I'm no fan of carved ivory tusks, antique or not, but something that always gets unfairly caught up in ivory bans are portrait miniatures, which from the late 17th Century onwards are invariably painted on wafer thin pieces of ivory. Previously, dealing in and transporting portrait miniatures for exhibition was made possible under CITES rules, which dealt with the ages of the ivory in question. But now these rules are being dramatically tightened. According to The Times;

'Under the rules to be announced by ministers, dealers will be told to prove the age of items or face having them confiscated or destroyed. Without documentary proof, they may be forced to use costly radiocarbon dating'.

Items must be more than 70 years old. The net effect of this will be to more or less kill the market in portrait miniatures. The market was already suffering from new US rules, which affected the transit of miniatures between Europe and the US. But now the market within Europe and the UK will be affected too, because in practice it is very difficult to 'prove' the age of a portrait miniature in a cost-effective and non-interventionist way. The nature of such small, portable things is that they rarely come with reams of paperwork attached to them, so there won't be 'documentary proof' of age. And in terms of value they're generally traded, even the good ones, for above the low thousands of pounds, so it's impractical to go around regularly commissioning carbon dating. It so happens that portrait miniatures are painted on Indian ivory, but 'proving' that to the benefit of a customs officer is impossible without destroying the object in the first place.

So while I'm all in favour of doing everything we can to protect elephants, it seems to me that a lack of imagination risks damaging the trade in, interest in, and exhibition of, British portrait miniatures. These were, as it happens, one of the few genuine areas of artistic development in which Britain led the world. British portrait miniaturists, from Samuel Cooper through to John Smart (above) were the best the world has ever seen. The reasons for this were many, but one was the dispersion of families across the globe during the days of the British Empire, when it became a tradition to send small images overseas.

Update - it looks like a certain amount of spinning has been going on by the government here. If you read the official announcement on the Defra website, there is no mention of seizure or destruction if the age of objects cannot be proved, as suggested by The Times. Instead, the government will begin a consultation with those involved as to how the age of items can indeed be proved. So it's far from certain that radio-carbon dating, also suggested in The Times, will be the only means of testing for age. The Antiques Trade Gazette has been told by a government source that;

the government is “supportive of the trade in historical objects” and that it will be made clear the target is modern poaching of endangered species. 

Update II - a reader from Japan writes:

These ivory trade restrictions are creating headaches for connosseurs and collectors in Japan too. Ivory has always been a precious material in Japan, but used ever more sparingly until about the middle of the 19th century. Old netsuke will immediately come to the mind of the Western reader. For connouseurs today, one of the biggest headaches is that the ends of scroll bars of precious antique painting and calligraphy are usually made of antique ivory. So, in order to show pieces in the US, scroll ends have to be demounted and replaced by wooden parts. Lids of small antique tea caddies are also made of ivory. Again, wooden replacements have to be newly made. The implications for the art trade are obvious. The implication for restorers are devastating! The ivory needed today to sustain antique works of art are minimal – a ‘zero ivory’ policy including the needless destruction of smuggled ivory may be popular with many. But it is not a good solution. Ivory supply could be state-controlled and rationed. Antique pieces could be analyzed and registered. Moreover, the ivory conflict in Africa needs a local political solution.

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