Ivory: the debate on the USA’s ban continues, but with inadequate progress

It is nearly ten months since President Obama’s executive order heralded a de facto ban in the USA on the import of works of art made of, or containing ivory.  Now, in some administrative and political circles, it is increasingly understood that the applauded effort to stamp out the trade in tusks from the endangered African elephant has had an unfair and unintended impact on the commercial movement of historic works of art.   Curators, collectors and respected figures involved in the market, have articulated the fact that the current impasse will do long term damage to the appreciation and study of artefacts of universal significance.  But this view needs to be amplified.  And, without wishing to repeat the obvious: not a single elephant will be saved as a result of this attack on our shared cultural inheritance.

American museum directors have gone on record to say that ‘recently introduced regulations on African elephant ivory are seriously curtailing their ability to mount exhibitions and acquire works for their collections.’ (The Art Newspaper, November 2014).  While the debate is being largely and negatively framed by the conservation lobby, there are some in that camp who, albeit reluctantly, concede that there are two sides to the argument.  In October, Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation debated with Marjorie Trusted of the V&A, on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow (19 October 2014).  While Travers said that he could not himself enjoy a baroque ivory without seeing a slaughtered elephant, he did agree that there was a justifiable place for properly authenticated works of art from the past, even if he would personally prefer for that not to be the case.  A fair and balanced contribution to the debate.

Although representatives of American dealers report that there has been some progress in New York State with regard to the inter- and intra-State trade in ivory with adequate documentation (often, in reality, long since lost), the issue of imports remains unresolved.  Without a free, international market (already certified through CITES, to which the USA is a signatory), any domestic concessions are little more than a pyrrhic victory.  At the Federal level, there is ongoing lobbying about how to moderate the illogical ban on the import of antique ivory, and this is the major, necessary agreement being sought.

What is sadly lacking is a widespread public discourse on the reasonable case for works of art incorporating or made of ivory.  The impression is also that those in office, or seeking preferment in the future, do not wish to stick their necks out over what is, in the larger picture and to them, a small issue.  There are, however, genuinely sympathetic voices in Congress, as well as those who might be of assistance as a matter of political expediency.  And within the agencies such as the Fish & Wildlife Service, who are responsible for implementing Government policy, there is understanding of the injustice being imposed on those who have collected or simply inherited old, worked ivory.

Progress is slow, but surely with humility, patience, cooperation and understanding, an equitable solution will be found.

This note was published, with minor alterations, in Antiques and The Arts Weekly, December 12, 2014, p. 66.