UK Auction Houses Ignoring ‘Legal’ Ivory Trading Requirements

Stephen Wiggins Studies 1 Comment

On the 19 October 2017, the Two Million Tusks (TMT) study, “Ivory: The Grey Areas was released – the study encompasses a comprehensive analysis of the United Kingdom (UK) auctioning of ivory lots during the 2016/2017 period.

TMT Ivory The Grey Areas

Two Million Tusks (TMT) study – “Ivory: The Grey Areas,” October 2017

Alarmingly, the TMT study has concluded that “for 90% of the ivory lots investigated, auction houses did not satisfy the legal requirement to demonstrate proof of age for pre-1947 ivory.”

In September 2016, DEFRA announced a ban on UK trade in modern ivory, but perpetuated support for trade in worked, pre-1947 ivory (thus designated as “Antique“).

The TMT study highlights a nonchalant, casual acknowledgment by those marketing ivory lots for sale. The legal onus is always on the vendor to ensure compliance with the law, that only pre-1947 worked ivory can be legally sold in the UK……however, in response to TMT’s covert enquiries on specific ivory lots marketed, an overwhelming majority of vendors implied that the onus was on the buyer to ensure the legal compliance of any given lot, and/or the vendor was unable (or unwilling) to provide any provenance to indicate compliance. How is that an acceptable approach that ensures the UK antiques industry is above reproach?

Where reassurance was given by the vendor that an ivory lot complied, it was anchored upon flimsy base evidence and/or an appraiser’s ‘opinion’ – Radiocarbon dating is the only reliable and independent method to accurately date when the ivory was last attached to a living organism (an elephant). But many of the lots for sale in the UK are below £400 in value, when carbon dating costs around £400 per item. Therefore it’s argued by those marketing ivory, that it is not cost-effective to employ such proof of provenance unless the costs are passed on – but why shouldn’t it be compulsory for such carbon dating proof in every case no matter the costs, rather than reliance on vague, potentially incorrect and biased vendor visual ‘appraisals’ (assuming one is even proffered)?

To highlight the lack of even a base level of theoretical compliance and self-regulation within the antiques industry, TMT discovered elephant tusks openly for sale in the UK – no one within the UK antiques/auction industry should need an “appraiser’s eye” and/or carbon dating to help them identify the obvious illegality of such unworked ivory tusks – but there they were, openly for sale in the UK!


Based upon TMT’s findings:

  • If 90% of the ivory lots surveyed for sale in the UK could not be clearly identified as complying with DEFRA requirements (not once, but the same level of inability to prove compliance was evident in TMT’s pilot and main studies), then this clearly shows the UK antiques industry’s ability to self-regulate such activity is virtually non existent – in the absence of clear and overwhelming compliance, there is clearly a blurring of  ‘legal’ potentially masking high levels of illegal laundering of ivory.
  • How can the UK antiques industry continue to try and claim there is no link between its trade of “Antique” ivory and modern ivory linked to poaching, when 90% of the UK trade in ivory has no clear basis to verify its claims that only “Antique” ivory is being traded?:

However, when auction houses are clearly unable to prove the age of ivory and the age is often misrepresented (supported by evidence within this report) it is reasonable to question whether the ivory for sale has come from an elephant killed after 1947, Ivory harvested post – 1947 cannot be traded without an Article 10 certificate issued by the government. Even if the ivory is genuinely antique, the continued supply of ivory of any age continues to fuel demand and the social acceptance of ivory” – Two Million Tusks (TMT) study, “Ivory: The Grey Areas, page 5

  • Either there is a wilful lack of awareness of the rules for UK ivory trading within the UK antiques industry, and/or a rapid education programme is necessary. Perhaps, there is also a lack of substantive deterrents to encourage compliance – perhaps much greater emphasis on penalties and enforcement might encourage the antiques industry’s compliance to self-ensure only worked, pre-1947 ivory is traded (rather than just a moral imperative that the industry does not acknowledge)?
  • In November 2016, based upon a rushed (superficial and inconclusive) TRAFFIC report, “A Rapid Survey of the UK Ivory Markets,” the UK antiques industry claimed this TRAFFIC report gave the industrya clean bill of health” (sic). It is clear from TMT’s study, (and past analysis) that the UK antiques industry has anything but a ‘clean bill of health’ when it comes to the trading of ivory, and thereby appears to lack any self-acknowledged moral responsibility when it comes to ivory trading (and placing legal compliance above profiteering regardless).


TRAFFIC report, “A Rapid Survey of the UK Ivory Markets,” August 2016

  • Expecting the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) to police the entire antiques industry is not feasible, without significant additional investment and resourcing.
  • In August 2017, the UK was named at the world’s largest ‘legal’ ivory exporter (but how much of that is actually legal?) – but, TMT’s study highlights that “Ivory represents less than 1% of annual sales for many auction houses in the UK” – so an end to all UK based ivory trading would clearly not finish off the UK antiques industry – to help save elephants being poached for ivory, to any rational mind, that’s a small price to pay to help end ivory worship and needless elephant deaths that profit from that worship.

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