Lord Cormack: We need measures to prevent the sale of ivory. But blanket solutions are rarely good ones

Posted On: 
5th February 2018

Stamping out the evil trade in ivory is a noble aim – but we must find a solution that safeguards legitimate collectors, writes Lord Cormack

We acquire a knowledge of our past partly through a study of the everyday objects and artefacts our ancestors used, writes Lord Cormack
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No sane person could dispute the fact that those who slaughter elephants for their ivory are engaged in an evil trade that must be stamped out. It follows that I agree wholeheartedly that there should be effective measures to prevent the sale of poached ivory and a ban on trading in items carved from tusks that have been removed from elephants in recent decades.

But blanket solutions are rarely good ones and I cannot accept that tackling a current evil should require us to ban the carefully controlled sale or acquisition of antique ivory.

For over a thousand years some of the finest of carvings were of ivory and it was a substance that was used extensively in the making of furniture, and of musical instruments and domestic utensils.

There is a recognition of this in the recent consultation document where it is proposed that musical instruments containing tiny portions of ivory and embellishments on furniture, such as handles and modest inlay, should not come under a ban. Nor should items of museum quality – itself a subjective term.

But if this implicit acknowledgement that such exemptions do not endanger elephants why place a prohibition on other ivory items? There does seem some willingness to extend the exemption to cover miniatures.

A vast number of those painted between the late 16th and mid-19th century were painted on thin pieces of ivory. To add them to the list will endanger no elephants.

But nor, I would contend, would adding further exemptions. In the eighteenth century, for instance, many tokens of admission to theatres, and gaming counters, were made of ivory, and so were passes to the races.

What is the logic of saying you can continue to possess these things but others must never have the opportunity of acquiring them and thus pursuing an entirely legitimate interest in aspects of their country’s history? And again, what is the logic in saying you can purchase a coffee pot with ivory insulators on its handle but not cutlery with ivory handles?

We acquire a knowledge of our past partly through a study of the everyday objects and artefacts our ancestors used. Items of furniture on sale in antique shops are often made of species of wood that are now extremely rare. But that is no reason for banning their sale or acquisition.

And many carvings, particularly from the late Middle Ages and beyond, were of ivory. Not all can be readily acquired by museums. Many were objects to assist private devotions.

And what about items made from walrus ivory? One thinks of the wonderfully and rightly famous Lewis chessmen in the British Museum, dating from the 12th century. But I also think of those marvellous examples of folk art, the so-called scrimshaws. Sometimes they were carved out of whalebone but often from walrus tusks.

I am one of those who is very opposed to whaling, unlike our Japanese friends, but to say that it would be wrong to acquire some love token carved by a sailor far from home in the early 19th century is absurd.

What I do accept is that those who trade in ivory objects should be properly licensed to do so and every item made of ivory should have a registration certificate guaranteeing its age and its provenance.

Dealers, and auction houses, handling ivory should be on a central register and it should be illegal for those not on that register to trade in ivory. Some will argue that such rules and regulations would be evaded.

There will always be those of nefarious intent who will seek to get round rules and regulations but do we seriously think that if there is a total ban people will not seek to get round that? And there will be mistakes but because, from time to time, a faked or forged drawing or painting makes its way onto the art market we do not advocate the closure of the market.

I hope that anyone with a real sense of history, and an appreciation of art, will accept the force of these arguments and, most important of all, that the government will accept them and produce a solution that provides severe penalties for trading in illicit ivory and real safeguards for the continuation of legitimate trade and bona fide collectors and purchasers.


Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and founder and president of the All Party Arts and Heritage Group. He is life president of The House magazine