Thursday, February 27, 2014

New Legislation Troubling for Ivory Collectibles

The United States has been a longtime proponent in the fight against illegal ivory trade.  However if changes announced by the current White House administration this month (February 2014) remain unchanged, this announcement will have a huge impact upon the sale of ivory items within the United States.  According to a White House fact sheet, federal agencies have new guidelines drafted which are designed to reduce ivory trafficking.  All commercial import of ivory will be banned, including the import of antique ivory pieces.    Guidelines for the sale of ivory items across state lines will be drafted, and the sale will be limited to items classified as “Antique.”  The guidelines go on to clarify “Antique” as an item which is more than 100 years old and which meets other requirements under the Endangered Species Act.  If guidelines remain unchanged, the onus will now fall on the importer, exporter, or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria.    
So, what does this mean for us?  While all of us support laws against the slaughter of animals, especially elephants, this new law regulating pre-ban ivory goes way beyond effective anti-slaughter efforts. A recent post by The Magazine Antiques indicates that “the rules, say dealers in historic works of art, denigrate cultural heritage while failing to stop poachers, who will likely find ready markets for ivory elsewhere in the world.” The policy change in its current state will have a huge impact upon ivory collectibles market; sales across state lines of elephant ivory items will be limited to items which are over 100 years old only.  To further complicate matters, these new guidelines will be enforced at the state level and this will impact inter-state and intra-state sale if ivory further. 

The variety of ivory items in the market place is huge!  Some items are easily identified as antique, such as Okimono figurines, scrimshaw, snuff bottles and jewelry.  But, even then, the age of ivory of these items will have to be proven before any resale is attempted.  And what about items that have some ivory in their composition, i.e. musical instruments, toys, canes, guns, and the like?  Think about those teapots with ivory insulators; can they be resold or repaired?  What about all of these beautiful mid-20th century carved ivory chess sets?  What about pianos with ivory keys that are less than 100 years old?  The ramifications of the law change are massive.
As collectors and estate executors, it will be your responsibility to accurately identify the type of ivory items you have and their age, prior to attempting any sale.  Preliminary information is non-existent about what Fish & Wildlife or each state will accept as proof of age and legality.  However, documents you may want to begin finding that may be helpful include sales receipts with dates and item descriptions, previous CITES documentation, old appraisals, old photographs with the ivory item, notarized statements from elderly individuals stating how long items have been the family, etc.  Of course, style and age cracks will help identify antique ivory, but often can be difficult, especially when items were revived after World War II.  Under the proposed guidelines, the burden of proof will be on the owner to prove their age.

So, what happens to value if these guidelines remain unchanged?  Many antique ivory pieces are true works of art and will remain collectible unless the government enacts an all-out ivory ban, but will their marketability be the same?   Early Asian carvings such as netsuke, Okimono, screens, jewelry, and snuff bottles have a special beauty unique to themselves and collectors will continue to value these items. The availability and legal sales channels of antique pieces will be limited and it is impossible to predict the impact these new policies will have upon value.  Certainly, newer pieces of ivory carvings lacking documentation run the risk of losing a portion or all of their resale value.
If you are a collector of ivory, take time now to organize your documentation, just in case the policy remains as announced.  You can even register your collection. Estate executors need to be diligent in their search for evidence that documents age.  As an appraiser, I will need your assistance to identify and prove age, especially if the law remains unchanged and the interstate sale of ivory under 100 years old becomes illegal.
There is current pressure on the Obama administration to withdraw the guidelines, and of course, congress could intervene.  It is not too late to contact the president, Fish and Wildlife, your congressional representative and your governor to express your thoughts.    Fish and Wildlife are still working to clarify the policy, so there is time for your voice to be heard. Good intentions protecting endangered wildlife will play havoc with cultural artifacts owned by both private collectors and public institutions, and many of these were items that were carved well before all of us were born.  Again, while all of us are against the slaughter of elephants, banning the trade of historical and cultural items is like “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”  

Other relevant articles and websites include the following:

Vicky Nash Shaw
ISA CAPP, Certified Antique and Art Appraiser
919 475-6930

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