The Ivory Act, passed in 2018 and enacted in 2022, severely restricts the sale of items made from elephant ivory. After a consultation, UK Government ministers have decided in May 2023 to tighten the ban to include all ivory-bearing species, with the hope that this will help stop the illegal ivory trade and protect vulnerable species from poaching.
Since the introduction of the Ivory Act it is now not possible to sell items that are either entirely or mostly made of elephant ivory. The trade in antique ivory items made before the threshold date of 3rd March 1947 is permitted under a group of narrow exemptions. The most often used by those wishing to sell such items is the standard exemption that if an ‘item was made before 3 March 1947 with less than 10% ivory by volume’. If the item does fall into these exemption criteria than a license can be applied for through a Government approved body to allow them to be sold. All applications are applied for with the full details and images of the item(s) and are strictly vetted by APHA CITES.
It is the intension of the UK Government to add the following species to the Ivory Act in the near future. It will be required for Parliament to vote on the extension of the Act before it can come into force.
Hippopotamus - Hippopotamus amphibius
Items are carved from the four front tusks of the hippo and are mainly made into ornaments, jewellery and inlaid into other objects. Most antique items of this ivory are either made by indigenous African cultures or produced by colonial settlers within Africa.
Walrus - Odobenus rosmarus
Items are carved from the two long front tusks of the walrus and are mainly made into a sculptures, ornaments, jewellery and other small items. Walrus ivory has been valued for thousands of years and features in many cultures. Their natural habitat is in the Arctic circle but almost all cultures in Europe and across to Persian and Mughal India valued its use. The material is used regularly in Inuit/Eskimo cultures, as well as decorative arts from Scandinavia. Arguably the most famous items made from walrus ivory are the Lewis Chessmen, probably manufactured in Norway during the 12th century, which can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh & The British Museum, London.
Narwhal - Monodon Monoceros
Items are made from either whole or pieces of the long spiralling tusks that grow out of the heads of this species. They are usually kept as whole tusks or mounted into furniture or works of art such as boxes or walking sticks. Narwhal, like walrus, live in the Arctic circle and they also feature regularly in Inuit/Eskimo cultures. When examples of this species’ tusks or ‘horns’ arrived in Europe during the middle ages, they were believed to have come from the mythical unicorn and that they had magical and medicinal qualities. In Scandinavian cultures they feature in the decorative arts, mainly in Denmark as the Narwhal's largest habitat is Greenland. Said to have been made from the horn of unicorns, the Coronation Chair which was formerly used in the coronation of the Danish monarch in the Castle of Rosenborg, Copenhagen is, in reality, made from narwhal tusks.
Sperm Whale - Physeter macrocephalus
Items are made from either whole or parts of the large teeth that run down the lower jaw of the sperm whale. The teeth are usually either kept whole as objects of curiosity or used in European decorative arts as parts or inlay. If the surface has been carved by sailors or whalers, it is then known as ‘scrimshaw’. The largest piece of scrimshaw in the world, a whole engraved sperm whale jaw bone, is on display in the upper galleries of the main hall of the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.
Killer Whale - Orcinus orca
These teeth look similar to sperm whale teeth but smaller. Items made from killer whale parts are very rare and would likely only appear in scrimshaw art of sailors or whalers in a similar fashion to sperm whale teeth.
If there are some antique items that you, a friend or relative think may be made from types of ivories in your collection, then please feel free to contact us for information and advice.
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It's no secret that the UK is about to see significant changes to the selling of elephant ivory, including antique examples. In 2018 the Ivory Act was passed which, once enforced, will ban the commercial activity of ivory. This will affect the value of ivory in all ways - it’s insurance value, it’s probate value and its market value. The bill will be effective from 6th June 2022, but what do we know about it so far?
The Ivory Act 2018 quite simply prohibits the dealing of ivory. This includes buying, hiring and selling ivory within the UK, and also prevents exporting from, and importing to the UK of ivory items for the purpose of selling or hiring. You will also not be able to buy an item made of ivory from the UK then export it. However, people will not be prevented from owning ivory, nor gifting or bequeathing pieces, and items can be exported and imported providing they are for personal use. Of course, one will need to know the rules and regulations of other countries, as well as the EU (if this applies).* The impact on antique ivory items will be notable and items made entirely of, or consisting of a certain proportion of ivory will become valueless on the open market. These pieces will not need to be insured, nor included in probate or inheritance tax valuations.
When it comes to selling, the ban will allow for some exemptions, which have been listed as:
Items which contain or are made of ivory which pre-date 1918 and are considered of outstandingly high artistic, cultural or historical value may be offered an exemption certificate.
The definition of ‘outstandingly high…’ is yet to be established, but rarity of the piece and the importance of the item (as an example of its type) will be taken into consideration.
Each item must be registered before being offered for sale, and it is thought this will cost £250. In order to register the piece, an application should be submitted to a panel of experts who will decide if it qualifies for exemption. Should an application be refused then a new application can be made, or an appeal launched.
Given the application and registration cost, the value of the item will be relevant here: items will need to be deemed valuable enough to pursue the process. Exactly who the panel of experts are has not been revealed yet, but it will presumably include individuals from museums, and possibly one or two people representing the commercial side of the art world.
There will also be further exemptions for items under section 10 of the Act:
Portrait miniatures, which pre-date 1918. Miniatures must not measure more than 320cm squared.
Items with a low ivory content, which pre-date 1947. The ivory needs to be integral to said item, and the volume of ivory must be less than 10% of the total volume of the material of which the item is made.
Pre-1975 musical instruments where the volume of ivory in the instrument is less than 20% of the total volume of the material of which the instrument is made. This will not include anything that, although capable of being played as a musical instrument, was not made primarily for that purpose. It does include bows, plectrums or other things made for the purpose of playing a musical instrument.
Items being sold and purchased by qualifying museums. ‘Qualifying museums’ are defined by various factors, depending on where in the UK the museum is. If the museum is outside the UK, it is required to be a member of the International Council of Museums to be ‘qualifying’.
All these items will be required to be registered with Animal Health & Plant Agency before being sold. Registrations cost £20 and can be applied for now here. Upon registering the item you will receive an immediate registration number which must be listed on all online and in all printed catalogues, and advertisements, alongside the item.
The exempt items will therefore still retain a value in the open market, and should not be dismissed when being considered for insurance, probate or inheritance tax valuations.
Another factor which we should also be aware of are possible changes to the rules surrounding other types of ivory, beyond elephant teeth and tusks. In 2021 DEFRA (The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) launched a consultation regarding extending the ivory ban to include narwhals, hippos, walruses, killer whales and sperm whales. This will affect antique works of art such as scrimshaw tusks and teeth, and narwhal tusks. Results of the consultation are still pending, but should the Ivory Act be extended then we may find that all ivory, in the widest use of the term, will become valueless also. For now, it’s all a bit of a waiting game…
Registering exempt items is something which Lyon & Turnbull can do on behalf of our/your clients. Please get in touch with Theodora Burrell should you have questions, or would like assistance with selling or valuing ivory at: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information and to see the Ivory Act in full, please visit: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2018/30/contents/enacted
Theo joined Lyon & Turnbull as a specialist in the Antiques department in July 2011, where she ran the seasonal antiques auctions for over a year before introducing the Interiors sale format. She now works primarily on the Fine Furniture and Decorative Arts auctions.
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We hold approximately 35 auctions per annum across the UK and live online, spanning many specialist categories from jewellery and watches to fine furniture; traditional British and European art to modern & contemporary stars; European decorative arts and design to fine Asian art from China and Japan.