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Antique ivory: an opportunity for progress on US imports?

25 August 2015

In the light of the Obama administration’s ‘National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking & Commercial Ban on Trade in Elephant Ivory’, published in February 2014, the present author asked ‘Is the US ivory ban counter-productive?’ [First published in the June 2014 issue of Apollo]. Despite a year of quiet and patient lobbying, the question of why it is antithetical to on the one hand protect endangered species, while on the other allowing historic works of art to fulfil an educational role, remains largely unanswered. The piece in Apollo suggested there was ‘no reason that common sense should not prevail, but it [would] take diplomatic skills on both sides to find a workable and mutually satisfactory solution.’

Fourteen months on, is progress being made? Well, yes and no. At a domestic level this problem for the United States has been made worse by laws enacted by individual States, such as New York and New Jersey, but others, including Maryland and Virginia, have (so far) proved more enlightened. Meanwhile, on 15 July this year, Republican Senators Steve Daines (of Montana) and Lamar Alexander (Tennessee) introduced into Congress a wide-ranging Bill aimed at halting the over-regulation of ‘legal ivory’. If adopted, this common sense Bill would specifically end what is, in effect, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) unilateral ban on the import of lawfully possessed ivory.

As for FWS, on 29 July this politically constrained agency published its ‘African elephant rule’, containing ‘proposed revisions to the Endangered Species Act’. This complex and highly legalistic paper invites comment during a 60-day window. On the positive side, FWS acknowledges (or perhaps clarifies) that museums should be allowed to import freely, for exhibition purposes, works of art made of or containing ivory. But the general ban, prohibiting museum imports for acquisitions remains, as does that for collectors, who are very often future benefactors to public collections.

The public is being short-changed by the hoopla surrounding the position being taken by FWS, and is being fooled if it believes that their action, with regard to works of art, is helping the otherwise commendable work towards saving elephants.

In responding to FWS (and indeed in continuing to fight State legislation) it can be demonstrated that, over the past two decades, American museums from East to West, and from North to South, have enhanced their collections with major works of art, from diverse cultures, containing or made of ivory. Many of these objects were sourced and imported from Europe – and acquired both by purchase and through gifts. It is perpetuating a myth to suggest that bona fide collectors and scholarly dealers have done other than properly record their acquisitions (through CITES documentation). And amongst connoisseurs, there is no issue with regard to differentiating the old from the new.

Now is the moment for the conservation lobby and the museum/collecting worlds to join forces and thoroughly document the validity of their fully compatible concerns.

For more on this topic, visit the H. Blairman and Sons’ blog.

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