Apollo Magazine

We can preserve elephants AND conserve art

This week's parliamentary debate on the UK domestic ivory trade revealed some serious misconceptions about antique ivory and those who study and sell it

Three soldiers (from the Flagellation of Christ; 1360), Master of Agrafen, or a follower.

Photo: Rijksmuseum

On 6 February, a debate was held in Westminster Hall on the subject of the ‘Domestic Ivory Market in the UK’. The immediate catalyst for this ‘debate’, scheduled by the Petitions Committee, was the more than 100,000 signatures demanding parliamentary consideration of the motion: ‘That this House has considered e-petition 165905 relating to the domestic ivory market in the UK’.

It needs to be repeated that there is no demurring on the part of those of us speaking up for the antique ivory trade, from the opinion that endangered species need to be protected. Moreover, does any one of us know a connoisseur of works of art who does not whole-heartedly support the well-considered aims of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)? To listen to the speeches in Westminster Hall last night was often a reminder that we are now living in a world of ‘alternative facts’.

The demand of the majority of MPs was, broadly, for a ‘total ban’ on the domestic (that is UK) ivory market. Throughout, with thoughtful interventions, Rob Marris (Labour: Wolverhampton South West) asked, in so many words, the simple question: would a ban on the movement of bona fide works of art made of or including ivory save a single living elephant? The question was not answered, nor indeed effectively addressed by any of those proposing a ban.

It is worth noting that many of those who made genuine and emotional pleas to ‘save the elephant for the sake of their grandchildren’ acknowledged the cultural and personal resonance of works emanating from a multitude of cultures, across the millennia. Even some of the staunchest supporters of the conservationist position acknowledged that such objects required a measured exemption from a ‘ban’.

In a very brief intervention, following a reasoned speech in favour of a balanced and informed approach to the display of and market in bona fide works of art, Danny Kinahan (Ulster Unionist Party: South Antrim) suggested that ‘the division [between the sides was] merely semantics’. It is hard to argue with this. Victoria Borwick (Conservative: Kensington) strongly supported the case for the cultural value of works of art, as well as for the market that keeps works of art moving between collectors and museums, while enabling the pool of knowledge about ivory’s material and artistic history to spread far and wide. Both MPs prefaced their remarks with total support for elephant welfare.

Remember this simple fact: 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. Having watched the discussion about ivory unfold over many years, but particularly following President Obama’s 2014 ‘Directors Order 210’, I have been frustrated that the animal conservation lobby has been allowed to present a binary case: it is not binary. We can preserve endangered species, and conserve those historic works of art that are an equal part of our shared cultural inheritance.

On the ‘other side’ it was suggested that collectors of, say medieval religious diptychs or baroque cups were fuelling poaching; that those engaged with the study or trade in the sort of works that often end up in public collections could not judge what was old, and that the market was awash with fakes. None of this is true.

Three soldiers (from the Flagellation of Christ; 1360), Master of Agrafen, or a follower.

Much was made of how the public overwhelmingly favours a ‘total ban’. But this does depend on how the question is phrased. Of course we want to ‘save the elephant’: why on earth not? But if you take the empirical evidence of the public’s engagement with works of art in museums, made of or incorporating ivory, then the answer is surely different. Over the past three years, observing families and individuals – just regular members of the public, not experts or connoisseurs – looking at ivory, for example, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna and the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, I have not seen one person turn away in horror. And, when I last enquired, the V&A had received but a single complaint about its display of ivory.

Where we agree unequivocally with the ‘conservation lobby’ is that poaching and the illicit trade in tusks is abhorrent and must be stamped out. To this end, many interested parties have spoken out in favour of the government’s proposal at the end of last year to toughen the law applied to the ivory trade, and outlaw any post-1947 ivory; hitherto exemptions have been made for some museum-quality works of art from this later period. This is a pragmatic solution to be welcomed. And, to reassure those who rightly worry about how to be sure if something was made before or after the cut off date, the answer is simple: if in doubt, cut it out.

The promised consultation will come soon. What came through strongly and quite properly from the debate was the desire for some sort of authentication process that would give confidence that the market was not a cover for the meretricious trinkets that by and large have made up the case for alarmist television broadcasts and newspaper articles. If this is what the government decides, such a process could surely be implemented.

The value of ivory works of art, that are in no way at the expense of the diminishing population of elephants, was put perfectly in a release by the Victoria and Albert Museum in advance of the Westminster Hall debate: ‘The V&A has important ivory objects of historical significance throughout its collections, including objects from the early 20th century. These predate the illegal poaching of elephants. Whilst the V&A is not actively seeking to collect early 20th century ivory, the Museum will consider acquiring objects dating prior to 1947 featuring or made from ivory where there is a strong link to the collection and within relevant regulations and guidelines.’

In summing up, Thérèse Coffey, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, reassured the 30 or so members of the House who attended the debate, that the government planned to introduce a proportionate and effective ban, and that it would consult with the conservation lobby and those involved with works of art to finalise a robust and workable set of rules.

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