A young musician, reentering the country with the violin she has had since she was young, returning home after performing a gig overseas. A Smithsonian staff member escorting paintings on loan from Tokyo. A man moving across the country with his family heirlooms, including his grandmother’s antique silverware and his grandfather’s old revolver. Pretty soon, all of these people, and many more in a myriad of individual situations, may find it increasingly difficult, or even impossible, to do such basic things.
A Department of the Interior crackdown aims to deal a killing blow to poaching by making it more difficult than ever to bring ivory in or out of the US, or to even transport ivory objects domestically, across state boundaries. The target of this policy is, of course, the black market in ivory from animals poached recently, and in the future. The administration’s intention is clearly admirable, as we all wish to do what we can to help save endangered species from extinction. However, it seems clear that either policymakers have no concept of the wide-ranging consequences of such a policy, the collateral damage if you will, or that they simply do not care.
Under the international treaty known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), drafted in 1973, it is illegal to bring into signatory countries objects made from ivory, certain kinds of snakeskins, rhino horn, or any of a long list of other endangered species’ furs, skins, or body parts, with the exception of anything made before 1976. By placing a contemporary date on the policy, those drafting the wording of the treaty made sure it would be targeted at cutting down on contemporary poaching currently ongoing. While there are valid concerns relating to the issues of forgers & smugglers intentionally aging new objects in order to pass them off as antiques, and the difficulties of discriminating between objects from the years or decades immediately before and after 1976, the policymakers at that time recognized that blocking the movement of objects far older – including artifacts of great artistic or historical value, such as a 12th century chess set from the British Museum, which drew great crowds when loaned to the Metropolitan Museum just two years ago, and under this policy might never be seen in the US again – does nothing to curb poaching going on today, and indeed serves no purpose at all other than to provide great difficulties for the arts and other particular sectors of our society.
It has been suggested that any ivory out there, allowed legally into the country, encourages continued poaching by demonstrating a continued demand for ivory. An article in Forbes quotes a representative from Fish and Wildlife as claiming: “we believe that a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory and rhino horn trade is the best way to ensure that U.S. markets do not contribute to the decline of these species in the wild.” In fact, quite to the contrary, it seems clear that having older ivory out there provides a source, a supply, of ivory for those seeking to produce or obtain ivory objects without supporting contemporary poaching.
When we think of ivory, we tend to think of knickknacks and scrimshaws, and/or of wealthy art collectors who move in circles quite foreign to the rest of us. But we are all ourselves collectors too; we go on vacation, we buy souvenirs. How many things do you own that might have ivory on it, possibly without you even knowing it? What’s that inlay on the body of your guitar made of? How about the buttons on that vintage aloha shirt you bought the last time you were in Honolulu (or Bali)? Or the wristwatch your grandfather gave you when you were a kid? When you bought that knickknack in that quaint little shop in Llangollen during your honeymoon forty years ago, did you get a certificate of authenticity and proof of antique provenance?
Under this policy, we can say goodbye to the idea of ever selling our family heirlooms to retire comfortably, or inheriting those heirlooms from relatives living out-of-state or overseas. Forget about ever hearing a concert from the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Yitzhak Perlman, or any of the world’s great Philharmonic Orchestras (not to mention countless other musical artists and groups) who might not be able to travel to or within the US, for fear of having their instruments seized for the tiny bit of ivory on the tip of their violin, viola, and cello bows. Likewise, we can forget about ever again seeing any of the greatest treasures of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean painting. It has already become increasingly difficult in recent years to get loans of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean artworks to show in our museums, for a variety of reasons; if museums around the world are required, for example, to replace the ivory toggles used to help tie scrolls closed with plastic ones just to accommodate US law, it could have seriously deleterious effects on relationships between US museums and museums the world over, forcing us to say goodbye not only to American audiences getting the opportunity to see and enjoy those particular types of East Asian artworks, but potentially making it far more difficult for our museums to borrow and show any artworks from overseas at all. And if the great crowds lining up outside the Frick Gallery in New York last summer to see Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” are any indication, there is a great interest in continuing to be able to borrow works from overseas. Tiny though these sectors of the economy, or of society, may be, I do think it terribly undesirable. And it shows a disregard on the part of the administration for considerations of our great cultural institutions and experiences.
Returning to the matter of the unintended consequences this policy could have for all of us – collectors, dealers, and typical private citizens alike – the Department of the Interior’s official press release does briefly mention that some classes of objects, including “bona fide antiques [and] certain noncommercial items” would be exempt, so long as the owner/seller/shipper provides proper documentation. Of course, it comes as no surprise that information about the applicable law is confusing and contradictory. The New York Times and Washington Post note that exemptions are made for those who can prove that the ivory was legally acquired before 1976, while the Dept of the Interior’s press release says that one must prove that “an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document.” Cultural heritage lawyer Rick St. Hilaire, meanwhile, on his blog, gives 1989 as the cut-off date. Yet, “antiques” are defined as being at least 100 years old; so, are objects made less than 100 years ago, but before the 1970s, antiques, and legal to own and trade, or are they not?
In any case, as an astute commenter on the Washington Post’s article online notes, it doesn’t really matter what the precise technicalities of the law may be. Any individual customs officer, on any given day, might be less familiar with the permits, or have a different personal understanding of the regulations, or might make a different determination as to the veracity of a traveler’s claims, or as to the age or identification of his objects. Customs officers are not experts in the appraisal of antique ivory, snakeskin, and every single other potential type of contraband – and case in point, neither is the average tourist souvenir-buyer. I myself have a set of mahjongg tiles I bought at a flea market in Tokyo which I imagine are plastic but which may well be ivory. Beats me. And, as the young musician in the Washington Post article notes, he too only suspects that the tip of his bow might be made of ivory, and doesn’t himself even know whether it’s antique ivory, or might have been replaced relatively recently before he bought it, or whether it’s even ivory at all.
Ironically, the one group not targeted by this crackdown on ivory trafficking? Sport game hunters, who are permitted two African elephant sport-hunted trophies per year.