Grandma’s Cameo Becomes Yard-Sale Contraband

How will a government ban on selling or trading antique ivory help save endangered elephants?

By: John Leydon

Ivory CameoOn June 26 countless antiques, musical instruments and other objects made from ivory or decorated with it will be effectively banned by the federal government from sale or trade within the U.S. Coupled with tough new international import-export restrictions, the value of these objects, once in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will evaporate.

The expressed aim of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to discourage the ivory trade and protect endangered African elephants, though it is difficult to discern how that effort is aided by attacking, say, collectors of Victorian or Art Deco treasures.

To avoid having the ban termed a “blanket prohibition,” which would require congressional legislation, the Fish and Wildlife Service has granted a “regulatory exception” that covers a minuscule number of ivory-laden objects that can meet its elaborate requirements. In addition to proving that a particular object is at least 100 years old, its owner must possess official paperwork showing that it was imported to America before 1990, or legally thereafter, and provide unspecified evidence that the object has not been repaired or modified since December 1973. In other words, the bar has been set so high by the Fish and Wildlife Service that very few items will qualify, and then only at great expense and months of research and bureaucratic wrangling.

The message is clear to those who possess ivory-detailed objects including clarinets, canes, pistols, crucifixes, timepieces, chess sets, cameos, guitars, mahjong sets, pianos or furniture: You own it, you’re stuck with it. The objects shortly will be worthless and uninsurable by government decree, and the IRS is unlikely to allow you to write it off as an investment loss, no matter how much you or your family paid for it—a few hundred dollars at an estate sale or $20,000 at Christie’s.

The impracticality of monitoring every flea market, auction and estate sale in the country will force the Fish and Wildlife Service to selectively enforce the new regulations. Worse, many buyers and sellers—from hobbyists to professionals—may be unaware that they will be vulnerable to confiscation, fines and arrest for violating the new regulations.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service does step in to prosecute owners and confiscate the ivory goods, it will be doing so in the misguided belief that it is helping to save endangered elephants in Africa by demonizing all ivory, no matter the vintage. As someone who collects ivory-detailed walking canes and who counts himself as a dedicated environmentalist, I think the government is overreaching by creating this new criminal class.

If you see the increasingly common signs saying “Support the Ban,” remember that the new federal rule is not directed against the brutal mercenaries and terrorist organizations whose present-day poaching is endangering the last remaining members of a magnificent African species. The domestic ban is aimed indiscriminately at you or your family or your neighbors, and at heirlooms, collections and investments.

Conservation organizations and lovers of cultural treasures must work together to stop the tragedy unfolding in Africa by supporting forceful interdiction efforts. A first step toward encouraging such a sensible alliance might be for Congress to impose a time-out on the Fish and Wildlife Service, delaying the implementation of its misguided ban and giving thoughtful people who understand its impact, and its folly, more time to weigh in.

The House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs is scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the domestic ivory ban. Let’s hope our elected representatives can bring some sense to the discussion and reverse this new and faulty regulation.

About John Leydon:
Mr. Leydon, a retired telecom executive, is a member of the International Society of Cane Collectors and a staunch supporter of international wildlife conservation organizations.