Just before Christmas 2018, the UK government passed through the Bill confirming the ban on the sale of all ivory (with exceptions).
It was originally thought that this would come into force during the summer of 2019, once the government had put in place all the technical backup to make it work. This has now been delayed until the end of 2019, probably November or December, but this could easily get pushed back further if they do not have the computer systems set up to handle the volume of work that will be generated.
A spokesman from the department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) commented on the timing of the enforcement of the law and said: “Time is required to make sure the ban can be implemented effectively and robustly. Secondary legislation is required to do this, an online registration system needs to be developed and guidance to be issued. It is critical that all of these elements are in place before the ban can be put into effect.” Knowing the governments record on setting up online services, on budget and on time, I will be amazed if they can do this by the end of the year. I think they will underestimate how many items are going to have to be registered.
There are various exemptions from the Ivory Act and a quick run down of these is as follows:
- Items with only a small amount of ivory. Such items must be comprised of less than 10 per cent ivory by volume and have been made prior to 1947.
- Musical instruments. These must have an ivory content of less than 20 per cent and have been made prior to 1975.
- Portrait miniatures. A specific exemption for portrait miniatures – which were often painted on thin slivers of ivory – made before 1918.
- Sales to and between accredited museums. This applies to museums accredited by Arts Council England, the Welsh Government, The Scottish Government or the Northern Ireland Museums Council in the UK, or, for museums outside the UK, The International Council of Museums.
- The rarest and most important items of their type. Items of outstanding artistic, cultural or historic significance, and made prior to 1918. Such items will be subject to the advice of specialists at institutions such as the UK’s most prestigious museums.
At this point, I would like to point out that until the Ivory Act comes into force, it is perfectly legal to buy and sell and ivory items made before 1947 and even after it comes into force, it will still be legal for you to own any ivory items in your possession and you will be able to pass these onto your descendants by inheritance. However, it has not been made clear yet, how these items will be treated regarding value for inheritance tax purposes as after the ban comes into effect, they will have no value, unless they come within the exemptions above.
LESS THAN 10% IN VOLUME
Going through these exemptions, there are still various points that have to be clarified and my thoughts on these follows.
The exemption for the 10% by volume will be interesting to see how this works. Who will decide if the ivory content is less than 10%? Will it be up to me to decide for myself or will there be some body I will have to refer to? There will be a registration system whereby all items that fall within this category, will have to be registered on the online system at a fee (a suggested figure of £40 per item has been circulating, but you can probably guarantee that this will be higher when it comes into force and will increase year on year).
Some of the examples of the problems to come are like the small ivory escutcheon in the large mahogany bookcase, or the two small handles on the boxbase mirror illustrated, or any other similar piece of furniture. Will it be cheaper and easier to register the item, with all the form filling, supplying photographs of the piece and in a way creating a passport that will follow the item for the rest of its life, then informing them of who I have sold it to, which may require the payment of another fee to register it to the new owner. Or, would it be easier to remove the escutcheon or handles and replace them with a bone example and save yourself all the trouble.
Regarding calculating the volume of the items. Who is going to do this, it is easy if you have a box that you can measure easily and then calculate the area by volume and then measure the ivory content and you should be fairly sure you have got this correct. But what about a bronze figure with ivory head and hands, such as the Japanese figure shown, do you include the wooden base? It is original and part of the figure! How do you measure the area of the bronze and then the ivory? If you only take the bronze figure, then the ivory content is obviously more than 10%, but if you include the base, it becomes more difficult. Do you think this is 10% or more?
The same would be said about a chess board with ivory squares, initially, it looks like more than 10%, but if you take into account the thickness of the wooden board and that the ivory squares are so thinly cut (would I have to remove an ivory square to measure the thickness), then it would probably come within this exemption, but who decides?
There are many other examples that I could go through, but I think you get the picture. It is estimated that there will be over 40,000 items that could be registered under this section and I only hope that the online registration system is built to cope with this volume.
What I think is a shame, is that the bronze figure and the chess board would pass, but a beautiful Japanese ivory netsuke (which could use less ivory) would fail. Where is the logic of that?
These items will be allowed to have a maximum of 20% of ivory in them and would have had to have been made prior to 1975 and this does have some logic behind it.
As America found when they banned the import of ivory, all the major musicians and orchestras said they wouldn’t visit and play as they may have their instruments confiscated. America then changed the rules!
Presumably, these pieces will also have to be registered and I haven’t seen any estimates as to how many items these will include.
PORTRAIT MINIATURE PAINTINGS
These merited a specific exemption, which is for pre-1918 portrait miniatures where the visible surface area is less than 320cm squared. Again, these will have to be registered but can continue to be bought and sold.
I am still not sure why these were exempt, but I am pleased they were. Presumably, the elephant didn’t mind because it had a lovely portrait painted on its ivory tusk! The more cynical part of me, thinks that perhaps a few people of influence have collections of these that would suddenly become worthless, but I am sure that can’t be correct.
As you are seeing, there are going to be a large number of items that will be exempt and need to be registered should they need to be sold or bought.
I am not sure what happens if a private individual wishes to sell an item that comes within these exemptions. I assume that they will have to register it first, before they can legally sell it.
SALES BETWEEN MUSEUMS
I am still not entirely sure what this exemption includes. The way I read it is that if you wish to sell a piece to a museum, that is perfectly legal and presumably will include all items of ivory, not just the exempt pieces above.
Also, museums will be able to buy and sell from their collections to other museums.
I wonder how easy it would be to start up a museum?
THE RAREST AND MOST IMPORTANT ITEMS OF THEIR TYPE
I am really looking forward to seeing how this exemption unfolds as the Ivory Act states that consideration should be given to:
(a) the rarity of the item;
(b) the extent to which the item is an important example of its type;
(c) any other matters specified in regulations made by the appropriate national authority.
As yet, we do not know who is going to decide if an item falls within these categories and how they are going to interrupt these points.
Is something rare if it is only example of something, does a well carved Japanese okimono of exceptional quality qualify? How about a rare chess set where there are only five examples known to exist?
Who decides and what is the criteria?
If the people who decide this are drawn from the leading museums in London, then they would already have rare examples in their collections and therefore look upon things less favourably than say a number of museums out in the provinces who do not have such extensive selections available.
How long is the process going to take? How much will it cost? Many questions still waiting to be answered.
There are a number of issues regarding the insurance of ivory in the future. Once the Ivory Act comes into force, unless your item falls within the exemptions above it will have no replacement value.
You should therefore check to see if you are paying a premium to include ivory items that will no longer be replaced by insurance companies in the event of their loss.
If you feel that they are exceptional and might qualify as the rarest and most important examples of their type, then you must get this confirmed as quickly as possible and agree a value of that item with the insurance company.
Please don’t wait until you suffer a loss and try and do this afterwards.
I have tried to inform you as best I can at this moment in time.
Hopefully, as we get nearer to the date, we will be informed in more detail by the government of how it will all work and I will keep you updated as soon as I can.
If you have any questions, then please feel free to email me and I will try and help.