You scoot as close to the “do not pass” sign as possible, tempting the museum sensors and creating a very angry security guard behind you. Breathing in lightly, you take in the smooth, carved surface of Emile-Jacque Ruhlmann’s “État” Cabinet (1922)¹. White flower engravings disrupt the deep ebony and as you glance at the information card you read “medium: Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory.” The white of the flowers you appreciated only seconds ago is now not only a contrast in color, but a contrast in perception: should something so beautiful be created if its materials were stolen from another beautiful thing? Is it right to use ivory in art and for commercial purposes? Where is the line drawn? Public opinion vastly frowns down upon the distribution and sale of ivory with advocates who are tired of seeing the elephant population dwindle and who view poaching as a savage practice.
Yet, sometimes the sale and distribution of ivory is not so ebony black-and-white. While the ivory trade has been banned in most parts of the world since 1990 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Flora, there are exceptions to this rule: museum pieces (such as Ruhlmann’s “État” Cabinet created in 1922) and antiques dating from before the 1970s are still legally sold in markets². Especially in China, a global hub for ivory trade, it is not uncommon to come across a store selling ivory trinkets, carvings, and statues. This so-termed antiques ‘loophole’ has however, allowed poachers and ivory artisans to be sneaky with their trade. Just this July, 7.2 tons of ivory tusks were shipped into Hong Kong to be sold alongside antique ivory, where an artifact’s date can be somewhat altered or smudged. Hong Kong’s government was thus forced to reexamine their ivory policies and legislature voted to ban all ivory sales by 2021 including antiques, thereby closing any loophole to the 1990 convention.
Following suit, the UK is also imposing a blanket ban to end the sale of all ivory products³. Previous UK policy stated that the sale of ivory antiques before 1947 was legal but this will be amended in accordance to a full ban. Prime minister Theresa May stated after visiting China for three days to discuss the international ivory trade, “I am proud of the agreement that the UK and China have made to boost our cooperation in the fight against the illegal ivory trade. We have committed to using all the levers at our disposal to lobby for other countries to implement domestic bans and stamp out this abhorrent practice.” Public opinion is also on the Prime Minister’s side, with more than 70,000 individuals and organizations reaching out to the UK’s environment secretary about an ivory ban and protests across the country with signs that read “iworryforivory” and “ivory is not a luxury.”
The stricter government regulations are quite clear: antiques are not to be sold if there is even the slightest risk of having incoming ivory sold alongside. This may sound unnecessarily strict to those who oppose a comprehensive ban, but as Theresa May stressed, poaching is one of “the most significant challenges of our time.”³ If the elephant population continues at its current rate, elephants will be completely extinct in 10 years⁴; which is most certainly a problem of our time. To those who are concerned over the fate of Art Deco pieces such as “Etat” Cabinet, the blanket ban does consider bona fide pieces of artwork and their cultural value. More emphasis of this ban is placed on the selling of trinkets alongside antiques in Asian markets and incoming ivory on the streets rather than attacking museums (unless the piece is mostly ivory or clearly linked to poaching in which case it is banned). In a report on Vietnam’s illegal ivory trade, the number of ivory artisans who manufacture such trinkets increased 10-fold from 2008 to 2016¹. Ivory is still being snuck in and the government has reached a tipping point. Instead of staying idle, a government regulated blanket ban across countries may very well challenge our notion of what is considered a luxury. Should we buy beautiful and handcrafted antiques if poaching is promoted, if the market itself creates a means for the continuation of poaching? Or, though strict, should a comprehensive ivory ban take place in the hopes of stamping out such an abhorrent practice?
¹Levy, M. (2018). Works of art and ivory: what are the issues? Curator: The Museum Journal, 61, 47–59.
²May, T. (2018). Hong Kong moves to ban all ivory sales, closing a loophole. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/31/world/asia/hong-kong-elephant-ivory.html
³Hall, Macer (2018). Ivory sale to be totally banned in Britain after public outcry. Express. Retrieved from https://www.express.co.uk/news/nature/912398/ivory-sale-ban-uk-theresa-may-china-collaboration-public-outcry
⁴Weintraub, Karen. (2018, Sept.19). Elephant tusk dna helps track ivory poachers. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/19/science/ivory-poaching-genetics.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fscience&action=click&contentCollection=science®ion=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront