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It’s time to talk about the ivory trade

30 October 2017

The great European collections of artworks made from ivory include that of the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) in Dresden, with its beguiling array of treasures amassed by Augustus the Strong in the early 18th century. Its current exhibition places pieces from the Dresden holdings alongside loans from French and German museums of important ivories by baroque sculptors such as Georg Petel and Johann Georg Kern (‘An-Sichten: Baroque ivories in a dialogue of the arts’; until 21 January 2018). Also displayed are paintings, bronzes and other types of object that record the considerable hold of ivory on the baroque imagination, and suggest how the techniques and achievements of the artists who carved this once prized material influenced other artistic disciplines at the time. The exhibition promises to open new scholarly avenues for the study of historical ivories.

In early October, the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set out plans for ‘a total ban on ivory sales in the UK’, proposing more stringent regulation than the current rules, which are governed by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and implemented through EU legislation. Where the trade in antiques made from ivory carved before 1947 is at present permitted (that in tusks is banned regardless of their age), the proposed measures would see all ivory sales outlawed, bar four ‘narrowly defined exemptions’: for musical instruments containing ivory, for items that contain a small percentage of ivory which is integral to the object, for items ‘of significant artistic, cultural and historic value’, and for ‘the continued sale of ivory to museums, and between museums’.

Dealers and auction houses have until 29 December to respond to a public consultation on the proposal. They will petition for the exemptions to be reasonable and pragmatic, and while it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which the burden of proof will not fall to the trade in the future, expert opinion holds that genuine historic ivory is relatively easy to recognise. They will also find themselves restating the obvious, since what ought to be self-evident has become an obligatory prelude to any discussion of antique ivory, not least since influential public figures began to elide the illegal trade in wildlife with an assault on historical artefacts (in 2014, Prince William is reported to have told a zoologist that he would ‘like to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed’). As the antique dealer Martin Levy wrote on Apollo’s website earlier this year: ‘There is zero correlation between historic bona fide works of art that happen to be made of or contain ivory, and the reprehensible illicit poaching from endangered herds of African elephants.’

There is no reason that collectors, dealers, or museums who want to acquire, trade in, or exhibit historical artworks made from ivory should not also be deeply concerned for the future of the elephant and its habitats. It is a distraction to vilify these parties by suggesting any connection with the promulgation of, or proceeds from, the ivory poaching that has endangered both the African and Asian elephant. But it would be naïve for anyone with an interest in historical ivories, whether scholarly or commercial, not to acknowledge that such artefacts have nevertheless been drawn into ethical and legal debates about animal welfare. The art trade could bolster its position by promoting transparent discussion of the historical sources and supply of this material.

Museums are vital to this discussion, too: in the current climate it is not inconceivable that their holdings of historic ivories will come in for criticism. They should not shirk debate, but enable it through displays that aim to educate visitors about the history of ivory carving while addressing how prevailing attitudes to the material have changed, rightly and dramatically, in recent decades. That means lucid presentations about why ivory, and the craftsmanship that it invited, was so highly valued in Europe and Asia for centuries, and about how the properties of the material elicited works that could not have existed in any other medium. But it also involves more challenging questions, about historical attitudes to animal welfare and the trade in scarce materials. To encourage the appreciation of historical artworks made from a material venerated in the past but abominated in the present is not to refute the contemporary situation. The conservationists and the connoisseurs should not be on opposing sides.

From the November 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.