This week, ironically, we have all been talking about the elephant in the room: the ivory trade, a continued source of debate in the antiques world.
The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) began on Saturday, when 182 countries met in Johannesburg to discuss the issue. The current law in the UK states that only ivory which pre-dates 1947 is legal. Ministers have announced that antique dealers should have to prove the age of their items to avoid having them destroyed. However, there has not yet been a complete ban, despite this being met with fierce protest.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been campaigning for stricter regulations to be enforced. There has undoubtedly been a rise in demand for ivory from the Asian market and Fearnley-Whittingstall claims that is this market which is “killing African elephants”. He suggests we should ban all ivory which cannot be proven to be antique.
Chief executive of the British Antiques Dealers’ Association, Marco Forgione, is clear that BADA is very strict about ivory and takes the issue very seriously: “as an industry, we abhor the risk and threat to endangered species.” He is hoping a conclusion will be reached to “protect the trade and circulation of historic art objects whilst… ensuring all illegal and modern ivory is removed from circulation.” Similarly, BADA dealer Max Rutherston, who specialises in netsuke, suggests the importance of preserving antique ivory: ““ivory has been a chosen material for great works of art for thousands of years.”
Prof Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation programmes at the Zoological Society of London, told The Guardian that it is “maintaining domestic ivory markets [which] helps fuel the illegal killing of thousands of elephants”. By continuing to invest in ivory, we are perpetuating the demand for it and thus failing to protect our wildlife. Should we ban ivory altogether, antique or otherwise? It is the same question we see asked about fur: is it acceptable to wear vintage fur? Or does wearing vintage fur send out a message that wearing any fur is OK?
In America last week, $4.5 million worth of ivory was seized from the Metropolitan Fine Arts and Antiques store in New York, where they were illegally selling ivory without a license; the dealers’ license expired in 2014. The ivory is said to be destroyed next year, on World Elephant Day (presumably not a coincidence).
It is difficult to know whether or not destroying ivory which already exists is going to help cut down on the sale of illegal ivory. Earlier this year, Kenya burned a 106 tonne stockpile of ivory and rhino horn to express their fight against the illegal trade. However, there is a reported lack of evidence to suggest that burning ivory has led to a lack of demand for it. Though it is certainly an act of destruction the world must, and fortunately is beginning to, respond to.