The elephant in the sale room: New report calls for significant change to UK regulations on the sale of ivory

A new report out today (14 March) calls for a significant change to laws governing the sale of ivory in the UK.

Global demand for ivory has seen almost 150,000 elephants lost to poaching in under a decade, leaving numbers down by almost a third.

Current legislation makes it illegal to sell ivory from elephants killed after 1947 but trade in ‘worked’ items, such as works of art and ornaments dating from before 1947 is permitted under the current regulations.

Ivory artifacts

Ivory artefacts

However, the law is not able to regulate the expertise and knowledge of sellers who identify the age of items offered for sale, so it is dependent upon the seller to correctly and honestly assess it to be pre-1947 worked ivory. The current regulations are   therefore dependant on an educated and conscientious antiques trade.

The report, led by Caroline Cox from the University of Portsmouth, calls for enforceable and effective regulations that distinguish the legal ivory trade from the illegal trade in ivory. Recommendations include:

  • The UK Government to introduce a passport-type document for higher value ivory items.
  • DEFRA to provide clear guidance as to what ‘documentary evidence’ dealers will need to provide as to the origin of an ivory item being offered for sale.
  • Antique Trade Associations to compile and make easily available to the wider trade and buyers a “Best Practice Guide” regarding the law and the sale of ivory within the UK and EU.

Caroline Cox said: “The findings of this report highlight key issues that need to be addressed, both in terms of research and policy making practices.

“Ninety five per cent of respondents relied on their knowledge and experience (colour, the quality of the carving, etc) when assessing an object. Scientific testing is not widely used by the trade because it is expensive and invasive.

“Our research indicated that traders were sourcing their stock from a wide variety of sources, including house clearance, private sales, fairs, auctions, shops and car boot sales. With large percentages of stock being sourced from such varied sources, it is vital traders understand the law and regulations within which they must operate.”

The British Antique Dealers Association (BADA) estimates that there are around 20,000 antique traders in the UK, from large, international auction houses (including Christies, Bonhams and Sotheby’s) to stall holders, shop keepers and online traders. Yet, fewer than 10 per cent of traders belong to official trade associations such as BADA,

‘The elephant in the sale room: An Inquiry into the UK Antiques Trade’s Sale of Ivory’ report was in response to calls for a tightening of the regulations regarding the sale of ivory artefacts and to understand the effect that additional constraints would have on the British arts and antiques market, which is worth £1.6 billion annually.

Data was collected during one to one interviews with members of the antiques trade and an online questionnaire over a period of five months from June to November 2016. This was done to evaluate the amount and type of ivory being sold by the traders, and their risk assessment and appraisal strategies when deciding whether to accept an item for sale.

Caroline Cox added: “The antique trade associations have consistently expressed their concerns about the extension of an ivory ban to affect pre-1947 worked ivory, and point to the potentially negative impact on the trade of such a ban. The difficulty for policy makers, in the event that they should endorse a legal antique trade in ivory, is the creation of workable, enforceable and effective regulations that distinguish the legal ivory trade from the illegal trade in ivory.

“The policy decisions taken by DEFRA over the coming months are of vital importance. Auctioneers and dealers understandably do not want to see a ban on the sale of pre-1947 worked ivory, however their concerns must be balanced against the real and imminent threat to the future of wild elephant populations and to the fact that conservationists argue that the current legal trade acts as a cover for the illegal one.”

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