Stuck in an ivory tower?

Stuck in an ivory tower?

Musings on the governments ivory policy

In June 2022 the UK government passed, with a flawed consultation process, legislation which will over time, in my opinion, result in cultural vandalism on a par with the dissolution of the monasteries or Cromwell's Republic, why? Read on...


There has been a steady quashing of the antiques trade and it became noticeable long ago, as we approached the Millennium - when licences were needed to carry marine ivory overseas and we started to need licences to sell things we'd been handling as day-to-day commodities.

The pressure really began in earnest, I regret to record, when Prince William of Wales, now the Prince of Wales declared his intention to banish ivory in all its myriad forms from the Royal Collection. Whilst William may be able to avert his eyes, he can't banish what is quasi-public property, although he may be able to donate items to national museums.

For a chap who intended to study the History of Art and who was rumoured to be lined up for a spot of work experience at Christie's, his sweeping statement was especially disappointing and ill-thought-through. We do live in a democracy, the monarchy is constitutional, and William is entitled to private opinions, but even now in the 21st Century, we tug our forelocks to the aristocracy and the Royal Family in particular. Whether it was calculated or not, William's statement unleashed an unholy alliance of fanatical animal lovers and the unpopular conservative government used this to curry favour with the Royal Family and pick up some left-of-centre votes into the bargain.

Suddenly the pressure to 'ban ivory' became the zeitgeist of opinion, not just modern ivory but all ivory. The antique trade found itself demonised and on the back foot. A lame rear-guard action was funded to try and bring some common sense to bear, but as I see it, the Commons has long been short of common sense and was having none of it. Via the quango Defra, a public consultation was launched which was poorly circulated and the questions were hard to answer, as were written by civil servants with literally no knowledge or sympathy for the subject.

Defra was obsessed with tiny flecks of ivory which they said were essential for use in violin bows and, when pushed, did relax its stance on portrait miniatures when it was made clear that we could lose some of the nation's finest iconography. As history records, the act was passed and it came into effect in June 2022, the only protection towards the antique trade being the '10% de minimus' - where ivory content was, by self-judged opinion, less than 10% by volume of an object, a £20 non-transferable licence could be bought from Defra and the item sold. Why 10%? No explanation has ever been forthcoming.

What William, the animal lovers and the Government had failed to understand was that before plastic was introduced, its role and function were often achieved by ivory, and had been for centuries: it is as woven into the fabric of our history as modern plastic pollution is today - except it's far less evil.

Check for yourself. Look up London Ivory Warehouse on Google and you'll see that we were importing masses of ivory right up to World War II and beyond. Of course, there were plenty of elephants then and big game hunting was a common if exotic pass time. There are fewer elephants now, as Prince William reminded us, but there is also less demand for ivory and none from an antique stance.

If there is ivory in someone's collection, it's because it is old, and new material is avoided. I heard there were about forty carving shops in Beijing that produced material for tourists, but the Chinese Government closed them all down several years ago, the carvers themselves knew their product would be unlikely to sell. Despite this, the reported killing of elephants runs at about 100 a day, or 30,000 a year with ivory being blamed as the main objective. It's a shocking number and one that all involved with antiques deplore, but what we can't understand is how persecuting a green and gentlemanly trade will help.

To add insult to injury, the authorities in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia are actively talking about culling elephant herds by several hundred as valuable farmland and crops are being destroyed by them - is this the real reason behind those 30,000 other deaths? We just don't see modern ivory coming into the marketplace, so where do 60,000 tusks a year go to? 

Before the 2022 act came into force, the antique trade had a perfectly sensible relationship with ivory of all kinds, as introduced by the 1974 CITES act which made it illegal to handle or sell ivory of any form that was believed to post-date June 1947 thus saving art and antiques and preserving all that was worth preserving. All the modern act has done is introduce yet more tiers of bewildered bureaucrats with assorted levels of fees to pay. These bureaucrats have no idea how to spot a piece of modern ivory from an old one and so they in turn rely on the expertise of the national museums - the names and credentials of which are unknown and untraceable.

Currently, if you have an exceptional/important item that has more than 10% ivory by volume, you can pay £300 for an appraisal by one of these anonymous specialists. If they deem it of insufficient importance, you lose your £300 and that's that. What if they deem it important?

Where does that leave late medieval diptych dials for instance? These were used as personal timekeepers in the 1500s before mechanical watches and are made entirely of ivory. There are quite a few around and some are really amazing, but many are just working instruments, quite rare and still beautiful. Yet they are illegal as things stand, as are most 18th-century fans, cutlery, Dieppe models, screw-barrel microscopes and all sorts of other things.

Can you believe it? These animals died centuries ago, and the metaphor about horses bolting and stable doors is one so obvious, It's astonishing that our lawmakers really believed this would be a good thing to introduce - we used to do common sense so well in this country, but, and I must stop going on about this, I do believe our own dear Prince William lit this touch paper and no sense of moderation has been sighted as yet. 

It's hard to believe, but things are about to get worse. Not satisfied with introducing this delusional claptrap to 'save' elephants, our government is now planning to extend the act to cover marine ivory including narwhal tusks, killer whale's teeth (really - I've NEVER seen one of those before, they're neither eaten nor were historically hunted for blubber to my knowledge), walrus etc. To what possible end? With the possible exception of the narwhal, modern whales' teeth are NOT COLLECTED, only period-worked examples are of any interest at auction!! Narwhal is culled by the Danish government which issues its own licence number to each tusk so whilst they won't be as in demand as antique ones, I don't see why a legally culled example should be made illegal.

The House as it's currently constituted will certainly just waive it through will little opposition, and it chimes nicely with Prince Williams's declared feelings so I foretell it will become law, even though there are plenty of walrus - and whale numbers are healthy too!  Whilst lesser known to the public (and certainly our MPs!) whaling artefacts are an important part of our national record - what lit London throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries?? Whale oil of course!  The teeth were a by-product, but whalebone (in fact baleen, the flexible filters inside the mouth) supported our nation's womanhood until modern underwear came into being. Whale oil produced the brightest light until it was replaced by the deposits discovered in the Persian Gulf - those who want to 'Just Stop Oil' should pause to think that, it replaced a far more unsavoury trade. 

To consign centuries of art and culture to the bin because you don't agree with how they came about is too crass. The killing of these magnificent animals wasn't malign, at the time there was no shortage of the animals and they provided a key raw material that only plastic would effectively replace. So, why persecute the knowledge and connoisseurship that accompanies it to evince a 'moral victory'? The latest ivory ban won't restore a single animal to health. Work WITH the antique trade as we support conservation and always have!