New UK ban on antique ivory (ctd.)

October 9 2017

Image of New UK ban on antique ivory (ctd.)

Picture: V&A

The UK's on-off ban on Ivory sales has hoved back into view, with a new Department for the Environment consulation paper on a new ban. This would eliminate virtually all the trade in anything antique made with ivory. At the moment, there is an exemption for items provably made before 1947.

As AHN has said before, further restrictions on the trade in ivory products seems sensible, if it is the case that these 'antique' loopholes are being exploited by modern day ivory buyers/sellers/poachers, and their devastating effect on African elephants. But I've also written before about the unfortunate impact this ban will have on one important area of British art history; the portrait miniature.

One of Britain's few contributions to art history is the portrait miniature. From the late 17th century onwards, these were habitually painted on thin pieces of Indian ivory. British artists like John Smart produced some of the most extraordinary examples of the genre painted anywhere in the world (example above). Institutions like the V&A have extensive collections, as do many private collectors. The new ban will make it impossible to collect these, and will render private collections practically worthless overnight. 

Now I would agree that this is one of those 'first world problems' people like to point out on social media. But what's interesting about the government's proposed new ban is just how illogical it is. For example, there will be exemptions for:

  • Musical instruments
  • Items with only a 'de minimis' amount of ivory
  • Items of 'genuine artistic, cultural or historic value'.
  • And the 'continued sale of ivory to museums.'

Not much of this makes any sense, if you are into portrait miniatures. First, the exemption for musical instruments is not (though this surely cannot be the case) explicitly restricted to antique musical instruments. Second, the 'de minimis' exemption as suggested could not apply to portrait miniatures, since by proportion they consist of well over 90% ivory. Third, the exemption for 'cultural value' would be (says the DEFRA document) 'strictly defined to ensure that only the rarest and most important items are exempted.' If that is the case, then that by definition excludes the majority of portrait miniatures (and who will decide 'rarity' - a new government committee?). Finally, the exemption for museum sales is the most illogical of all. Here's the text from that part of the DEFRA document:

While we are clear that our proposed ban would not impact the display of items by museums, or prevent museum-to-museum loans, we recognise that there may be some cases where museums may want to sell or exchange items containing ivory to/with other museums. We also recognise that there may be some items owned by private individuals that are of such importance they may be valuable to museums. As such we could continue to allow sales between, or to, museums under the proposed ban.

Why should museums be allowed to buy, say, a portrait miniature by John Smart, but not you or I? What makes it ok for a museum to want something, but not the public? And can you imagine what a privately owned John Smart miniature will now be worth after the ban? A private owner may well be 'allowed' to sell it to a museum, but why would they? With only one or two institutions in the whole country likely to be interested in collecting such a work, and private buyers unable to buy it, such a miniature will be worth peanuts.  

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