The Ivory Mess

By: Clayton Pennington

“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.

About This Article:
The above was written by Clayton Pennington on April 13th, 2014 as an Editorial for the May 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. Article is © 2014 Maine Antique Digest.