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The Ivory Mess

Clayton Pennington | April 13th, 2014


“I’m making sure that piano is gone,” an auctioneer said, pointing to an antique Steinway before a sale. We had asked what the effect of the presidential executive order banning the sale of ivory had been. The auctioneer added that he was taking no ivory consignments until the law was clear.

President Obama’s executive order banning the commercial trade of ivory was signed in February; months later it’s unclear who can sell what, to whom, and under what conditions.

The ban, meant to cripple the illegal trade in ivory, has instead put a serious crimp in the antiques trade. The values of inventories and lifelong collections have suddenly been thrown out of whack.

Much of the problem can be traced back to the executive order itself. One of the major bullet points reads: “We will finalize a proposed rule that will reaffirm and clarify that sales across state lines are prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, and will prohibit sales within a state unless the seller can demonstrate an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document.”

Got that? Such an ambiguous statement— particularly when livelihoods are at stake—is unacceptable. We asked David Hewett to look into the law; his report on page 11-A details what we know so far.

The goals of the ban are laudable— majestic creatures are being senselessly slaughtered—but if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it’s an ivory highway. Godfrey Harris of the International Ivory Society sent President Obama a copy of the society’s white paper Ivory’s Cultural Importance in December. The president’s response in a March 10 letter read in part: “I know how important it is to many Americans that we get this issue right.”

There’s a long way to go, Mr. President.


Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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