Bad news: The Obama White House has resolved to save African elephants. The administration has adopted a two-pronged approach – new, overreaching regulations that impact collectors and museums worldwide, and an aggressive program to destroy confiscated ivory stocks. Nothing good can come of this.
As I have discussed before, the U.S. government in recent years has attacked the trafficking in illegal ivory – harvested from the tusks of tragically slain elephants and rhinos – by (perversely) helping to make it very, very profitable to sell that commodity. The Obama White House, and agencies in other countries, have burned or crushed stockpiles of confiscated tusks, figurines and artifacts, thereby almost surely driving prices higher, much to the delight of poachers. The price of raw ivory in China – the world’s largest market – is said to have doubled since 2011. It’s no wonder. Kenya was the first nation to burn illegal hordes of ivory – in 1989 – but since then several countries have embraced this policy, including Gabon, the Philippines, the U.S., China and France, destroying as much as 40 million tons of ivory.
Last November, before China and the U.S. had torched their sizeable stockpiles, Daniel Stiles of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature African Elephant Specialist group, wrote in a blog that the 30 million tons then removed from circulation was enough to “feed China’s 37 legal factories for five years.” As he concluded, the likely resulting price hike would provide poachers with “increased incentive to go out and kill more elephants.”
Imagine what might have happened if the authorities in all those countries had simply given those supplies to consumers at no charge. The price would have plummeted, forcing poachers to find another way to make a living.
Not content with these misguided efforts, the U.S. government promulgated new rules in February that would prohibit imports of all African ivory - even that included in antique artifacts, which had previously been exempt. Further, only pieces more than 100 years old could be bought and sold domestically or exported. Art historians consider the new rules idiotic, pointing out that many finely carved antique pieces were crafted from ivory taken from elephant “cemeteries” and in any event created when the mighty beasts were plentiful. New York based-dealer Clinton Howell has derided the new regulations, saying in a trade periodical, "As an antiques dealer, I have to say that the new rules come across largely as publicity stunts, not meaningful solutions, incidentally denying the cultural significance of this revered material throughout history."
Museums are up in arms, fearing that the ban will inhibit scholarship and prohibit the exhibition and exchange of valuable art works, including century-old pieces that would clearly not jeopardize today’s elephant populations.
A piece in The Financial Times by New York art dealer Anthony Blumka explained that during the Renaissance and Baroque periods ivory was a preferred material for religious and royal artifacts. As a consequence, there are numerous extraordinarily valuable pieces dating to that period. The FT pictures an ivory goblet carved in the 1680s that is currently owned by the J. Paul Getty Trust, and an ivory relief carved by David Le Marchand in the 1700s that is being shown at the Maastricht Art Fair, with a price tag north of $1 million. Under the new rules, that latter object cannot legally be purchased for import and displayed by a U.S. museum.
Bringing home the impact of the new rules, imagine owning a Steinway piano made in the 1940s – valued today at about $75,000 - now unsaleable and virtually worthless unless you replace the ivory keys.
Two national organizations that represent art and antiques dealers in the U.S. recently wrote a letter to the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protesting the new rules. They recommended establishing an expert advisory panel charged with authenticating the antique status of goods to be traded, thus cutting down on fakes made from newly-harvested ivory. This appears a reasonable solution to allowing the trade in important historic works to go forward, and to cutting down on the sale of illegal goods.
The art dealers group also protested the Wildlife Service’s exclusion of “personal sport-hunted trophies” from the import ban. Imagine: though art dealers might not be allowed to bring important Renaissance masterpieces into the U.S., a hunter can kill not one but two African elephants and bring home the heads, complete with tusks. Talk about a special interest carve-out!
The FT notes that dealers and art historians are especially alarmed because of a rumor that Prince William wants the ivory artifacts in the Royal Collection destroyed. It is reassuring to know that the U.S. is not the only country capable of overreach.