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Collecting Elephant Ivory: Understanding What’s Banned and What’s Still Legal

by Aubrey Dawson (04/30/12).

Starting an ivory collection with small items, like this carved netsuke of a frog on a leaf, is a relatively inexpensive into the field. Little netsuke can be purchased for as little as $30.

Ivory is a topic that causes much ethical debate and provokes mixed reactions. The topic of illegal poaching is regularly in the news and is a real problem facing us all today. Most people will be aware of the problems with poaching; we’ve all seen pictures on the news of seized caches of ivory being burned. Ivory comes from many animals, but for this article I’ll concentrate on elephant ivory, which is perhaps the most popular, beautiful and sought after.

In 1989, due to the significant amount of poaching in the 1970s and 1980s, a worldwide ban on the sale of modern ivory was introduced by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This makes it illegal to sell, trade, import and export all ivory that was made, collected, re-worked or produced after 1947. An act like this was essential and has gone a long way to protect endangered species, but it hasn’t solved the problems completely.

Small carved figures, or “okimonos,” sell for as little as $100.

In the last few years, the number of elephants being illegally killed for their tusks has risen again drastically. The poachers are indiscriminate and kill animals of all ages, regardless of the tusk size. This has put many buyers off and has led to even tighter restrictions. For example, the sale of ivory on eBay has been banned and customs departments are increasingly stricter on its movement. I’m an animal lover and I abhor poaching; however, as an antiques lover, I appreciate and admire antique ivory. We all know that modern carved ivory is a big no-no, but what about the older antique pieces? Staunch wildlife campaigners argue that the sale of older pieces increases poaching. However, the antique pieces were produced a long time ago, before people were made aware of endangered species.

Perhaps the easiest way to make sure what you’re buying is genuine and pre-1947 is to buy from a reputable source. Antiques dealers, auction houses, antiques shops and fairs should all be able to give you information and provenance on the item, and also an indication of age. See if the seller has other similar items as well, and remember, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. The old adages still apply: buy what you like and you shouldn’t go far wrong. Ivory is plentiful and there’s lots of it around.

Buying, selling or in trading in modern elephant ivory has been illegal since 1989, but older antique pieces, such as this Japanese carved ivory Geisha, is still allowed under international law.

What to Buy
You can start your collection with a small amount of money and a good place to start is netsukes. Netsukes (net-skee), meaning “root” and “to attach,” are traditional Japanese belt toggles used to retain a small purse. They are little works of art usually the size of a walnut and can come in many forms, often animals, oriental figures or fruit. Look for pieces that are signed with character marks to the base, and you’ll also see the two distinctive holes for threading a cord. Netsukes can often be bought for as little as $30. Similarly, you might buy a small carved figure, or “okimono,” for as little as $100. Collecting ivory need not be too costly, but if you want to build a big collection, or go for larger pieces, then I hope you have deep pockets!

Ivory has a vast array of uses and, although principally used for ornamental purposes, it can also be found in a variety of other domestic guises. From piano keys to glove stretchers, hair brushes, jewelry and even cocktail sticks, it’s a versatile and strong material. Look for tell-tale signs of age, such as wear and tear, cracks and splits, any damage and a slightly yellow discoloration. An old piece of ivory will have built up a nice patina over the years, which is the surface of the ivory, the same as you’d find on a nice Georgian mahogany table, for example. This is developed over years of use, handling and touching and cannot be reproduced.

Ivory is often confused with bone, and the two can look very similar, but you can learn how to tell them apart. Bone has a courser, more porous grain and small black flecks where the blood vessels were. Ivory is a much finer and smoother material with a very fine grain and usually has visible lines running through it, like the grain in a piece of wood. These lines are called the lines of retzius and are a unique feature of elephant ivory. There are a variety of other materials that look like ivory, so do be wary when buying. Vegetable ivory, or Tagua nut, is made from the hard seed centers of certain palm trees and bears a striking resemblance to elephant ivory. Animal bones, tusks and teeth from other animals and resin can also look very similar—and of course items in these materials have their collectors too.

Caring for your ivory collection is important. Ivory is a strong and resilient material but can be affected by extremes of heat and cold. Over time, ivory dries out and you’ll often see splits on larger pieces. You can avoid this by keeping the air around them humid; placing a small cup of water in your collector’s cabinet will help. Try and keep them out of direct sunlight, and away from strong heat sources like bulbs and radiators.

While his cup may look like ivory, notice the black flecks that gives that the piece away as made from bone.

New Prehistoric Ivory
Recently, large reserves of mammoth ivory dating from the ice age have been discovered buried under the Russian tundra. Every year, tons of mammoth tusks are exported to China and it’s touted as an ethical alternative to elephant ivory. It has provided a whole new material for carvers to work with, and these items are exported in vast numbers all over the world. Because the species is not covered by the CITES treaty, there are no restrictions on its movement. However, a lot of modern elephant ivory is illegally passed off as mammoth to circumvent the ban. Another trend that’s on the rise is to describe ivory as “ox bone”, and a quick search of eBay will bring up hundreds of listings that are in fact modern illegal ivory, so be wary.

Ivory can be split up into four main categories: European; Chinese; Japanese; and Indian. At present, perhaps the two most popular types of ivory are Japanese and Chinese. Both countries have produced master carvers and some of these works of art can be worth many thousands of dollars. Pieces come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny netsukes to large fully carved tusks and carved immortals. Some of these large pieces are simply breathtaking to look at and exquisitely made. The attention to detail is amazing and these artworks can provide hours of enjoyment. In the late 19th- and early 20th-century, China and Japan produced and exported carved ivory to all over the world. Being the second- and third-largest economies in the world, many wealthy Chinese and Japanese collectors are now buying back their heritage, so sometimes you might find you have a lot competition to buy a piece, especially if you’re buying from auction.

The base of this Japanese carved ivory figure shows the lines of retzius, offering an easy way to identify the piece as actual ivory.

Equally as sought after is European ivory, although it’s unusual to find large carved figures made entirely of ivory. More common are certain elements of a work of art made of ivory. For example, some of the good bronze sculptors like Josef Lorenzl, Demetre Chiparus and Ferdinand Preiss add ivory hands and faces in their bronze sculptures to give a more life-life appearance. Increasingly, Indian ivory is starting to become collectible. As the country’s industry grows, so they follow the Oriental lead of buying back their works. On the whole, it’s not as well carved as it’s oriental counterparts, but the finer-quality pieces certainly attract a premium. I think Indian ivory could well be a good area to invest in, but look for good quality, subject matter and size.

Ivory is a fine and beautiful material and love it or hate it, it’s here to stay. It’s versatile, beautiful and highly desirable. Enjoy building up your collection and treasure every piece, but remember its origins, and be sure to protect your pieces. Through raising awareness, we can ensure that in the future no elephants will be hunted for their ivory, and post-CITES ivory cannot be traded—and this will only increase the worth of the antique pieces. With the right education, it’s easy to distinguish between old and new, and to do the right thing whilst preserving some of our most beautiful heirlooms.

Aubrey Dawson is an experienced art & antiques auctioneer and appraiser in the United Kingdom. He also regularly works as an expert valuer for several antiques television programs in the U.K. He can be contacted at aubreydawson [at] me [dot] com or via
. You can also follow him on Twitter at @aubreydawson.


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11 Responses to “Collecting Elephant Ivory: Understanding What’s Banned and What’s Still Legal”

  1. Trader Eric says:

    it’s actually not that simple. when CITES started auctioning off confiscated tusks to china and japan a few years ago, they effectively nullified their own ban. anything carved from those tusks are essentially legal. of course there’s no way to distinguish it from illegal ivory, so it serves as a cover for illegal pieces.

  2. Lynn Rosack says:

    The possession and transfer of ivory has become much more complicated in the United States. California is now strictly enforcing a law banning the sale of ivory regardless of age. Dealers are having merchandise confiscated by agents from the California Department of Fish and Game.

  3. Treasure Hunter says:

    I have to agree with Eric and Lynn. Your article doesn’t delve deeply enough into the confusion of laws surrounding the sale of ivory in the U.S. Each state seems to have it’s own rules and it’s own priority level for enforcement. It’s an important topic for dealers and collectors alike and the cost of not knowing the facts can be financially if not legally catastrophic. I hope you’ll revisit the issue again armed with more useful facts for your readers.

  4. Hi guys, thanks for your comments. Treasure Hunter you’re spot on regarding the confusion surrounding the sale of ivory in the US and sadly I don’t have enough space to go into the current situation in each state. California for example has recently imposed a blanket ban on the sale or intent to sell ivory and I’m sure more states will follow suit in the future, whilst other states are more relaxed. Unsurprisingly the rules in Europe also differ greatly to those in the US.

    It’s a really interesting topic and one that I think will continue to be debated in the news and courts for some time to come. Until there is a unified global directive on the ivory trade then the confusion will remain and each state will have different rules. I would suggest that you always err on the side of caution to be safe, or contact your own state game, fish and wildlife department or that of the state you wish to buy / trade in and ask for clarification. It would be a great shame to see a global ban on the sale of all ivory, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it imposed in the future.

    Thanks for reading and please always free to give constructive criticism/feedback.

  5. This article states the: “every year millions of tons of mammoth tusks are exported to China”. Surely this is a typo or something. One million tons would be 2000 million pounds. Siberia would have had to be wall to wall mammoths for this to have been remotely true.

  6. Marshall – typo corrected.

  7. don says:

    I’m thinking the year should read 1974, not 1947 in the article above.

  8. No. 1947 is correct.

    • Rob says:

      Jeepers, Aubrey, how can one tell whether one’s ivory netsuke (Katabori) are pre-1.6.1947? I see the Japanese (I assume) signatures on the bottom of each. My father bought them from who-knows in Toronto a year or so prior to his 1985 death; and I have just inherited them. Though absolutely gorgeous – creamy, with brown and black imbedded in their deeper etched lines (faces amazing!) – I’d like to sell.

      Any contacts of note you might suggest in Toronto to assure me I’m not supporting illegal trade? And, if pre-1947, can you suggest how best (and process) to sell the little beauties?

  9. Lynn Rosack says:

    This article “Anatomy of a Netsuke” is both interesting & informative.

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