Vintage View: Celebration of the collapse of the ivory tower

Vintage View: Celebration of the collapse of the ivory tower

Kya deLongchamps celebrates the collapse of the ivory tower.

This month saw a quiet victory for wildlife conservation that touches on the antique collecting and trading community. Looking into the ponderous eye of an elephant, brimming with gentle wisdom it’s unimaginable how anyone would wish them harm.

Even putting aside the queasy-making anthropomorphic sentiment. They are smart like us. Why would we have any rights to slaughter a magnificent,endangered animal? A stand had to be made.

There has been a global ban on the international trade of raw ivory since 1989. Still, even with further national restrictions, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species which controls domestic and international EU trade, is fraught with wiggle room and exemptions for ‘worked’ old things.

In the UK, if the piece can be proven to have been produced (finished, without extra carving or reductions) before 1947, it’s good to go. Full government certification can release even younger pieces for sale.Reports of the continuing death of 20,000 forest elephants a year, taken solely for their tusks, brought the matter to universal public attention.

New ivory can be aged brilliantly by the unscrupulous and released to the market, only showing up in tests utilising radioactive carbon-14 dating thus further muddying the waters.

Between 2010 and 2015 the UK was the largest exporter of legal ivory in the world (convention study). The proposed Ivory Act (2018) propelled by the UK’s Environmental Minister Michael Gove, amounts to a blanket ban on old and new ivory being traded (it’s still being knocked around in the English courts).

There are proposed exemptions in the new Ivory Act for musical instruments made before 1975 with say bridges and keys amounting to no more than 20% of the piece. Antiques proven to be finished before 1947 can have only 10% ivory inclusions and there are a few caveats including incredibly important, museum level treasures.

The British Antique Dealers Association entered the fray associating itself with the newly formed Friends of Antique Cultural Treasures to challenge the Ivory Act. By some twist of logic, its legal team cited the European Convention on Human Rights (to property).

Vintage View: Celebration of the collapse of the ivory tower

The idea of old and ancient ivory as forming part of our cultural heritage is certainly a complex discussion. There have been two public ivory ‘crushing’ events in New York and London, including antique works of art. That has to hurt.

The High Court was not convinced by Friends of Antique Cultural Treasures, and they returned to the widely accepted linkage by conservationists of the exchange of vintage ivory and the illegal trade in all ivory. This month, a British judge threw out the British Antique Dealers Association’s argument that there were no “substantive facts” to suggest the trade in old ivory was encouraging poaching.

I’ve no doubt that many honest dealers and collectors are truly upset and firmly cling to the belief that the High Court was entirely wrong. Where this legislation goes, the EU is probably going to follow as Brexit or not, the UK is leading the charge in a war on elephant and rhino poaching.

There is a blithe, atrophied thought process that allows some people to openly wear vintage fur. Are we simply being emotionally triggered? Too PC? You can read The British Antique Dealers Association’s well expressed opinion here: bada.org/antique-ivory. The legislative attack on the ivory trade is expected to lead to the complete collapse of the market worldwide in this formerly prestige material. It has already had unforeseen consequences in some high- profile sales.

In July 2018, a George III Thomas Chippendale commode c.1766 was offered for sale by Christie’s in London in their 300 Years sales event. The Rowland Winn commode was found on examination of the catalogue to have been stripped of its 26 ivory lettering to the pigeon holes. They were replaced with a form of faux-ivory celluloid with the wince making name of ‘ivorine’.

The commode was offered with two other star lots including a pair of fabulously carved and gilded lime wood Dundas sofas, designed by Robert Adam.

The neoclassical commode estimate was about €4.7m, but despite having reached a record €1,035,000 for a TC work in 1991 (the Messer Collection), the commode sat with its ivorine decoration and the crickets chirped on the floor. Tweedy BBC Antiques Road Show experts were aghast and gushed to the newspapers. This “vandalism”, they said, was a sign of the times.

This story of the Rowland Winn commode says little about the reasonable sensitivities of Georgian furniture specialists, or the intent to preserve wildlife. The stall at sale, really says everything about the poor advice receptors and wanton greed of one individual US seller who brought the piece to London from the US to make his fortune.

There was a seductive parallel up-spike in interest in Chippendale at the very moment of the auction in London. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had just opened their own 300 Years show, due to run until January 2019, dedicated to the “Shakespeare of English furniture”.

Still, here and in the States, untouched originality is the holy grail of collecting at this high level, and under no circumstances could the 26 little ivory letters have slipped through US Customs if an American bought it.

Former US president Barack Obama in 2016 put aside even the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species certification and banned the importation and even the domestic trade of not just recent, but most antique elephant ivory.

So, the vendor just did what they thought was practical and had the 18th-century ivory professionally prised off before he took it to Christies in England.

Despite “the colour, the patination, the figuring of the timber — the great glories of this commode” (Charles Cator/ Christie’s), the Rowland Winn commode became a duck overnight even riding into sale on a ravishing pitch for €3.5 million to €5.6m tag ginned up by the high society Met exhibition.

It wasn’t so much the ivory, it was the completeness of the thing that bothered the bidders, and it wasn’t being bought for its ivory inclusions. Elsewhere there are collectors of ivory who frankly don’t give a damn. The want what they want.

In Ireland, I’m pretty certain that many people, to include environmentally sensitive members of the antiques trade, would welcome our laws being tightened along similar lines to the UK’s proposed Ivory Act (2018). Answering a suggestion for improvement in the Dáil in June on Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species rules from People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger the Minister for Culture, Heritage Richard Bruton responded in writing.

“Ireland does not have significant trade in ivory specimens” and that “Irish Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species management authority in my department to determine that the ivory has an attested legal origin”.

He did go on to add: “The current EU ivory guidance document is in the process of revision and will incorporate stricter rules on trade in raw and worked ivory.”

Soon, I predict all you will be able to do with that fabulous ivory netsuke or Asian deity, is give it away.

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