New Ivory Ban to Prove Problematic for Executors, Dealers & Collectors

This 1898 Martin O-42 has an ivory bridge and an ivory-bound top & back. With age documentation, it is saleable in-state.

In February of last year, armed wardens of the California Department of Fish and Game descended on an auction preview hosted by Slawinski Auction Company. The wardens seized 40 lots of ivory with a market value of about $150,000.

Slawinski employees claimed that there were about 20 wardens, armed and in uniform. Owner Bob Slawinski said that his younger employees were “intimidated and shaken” by the display of force. Fish & Game spokesman Patrick Foy laughed at the notion that there were so many wardens, saying “I doubt we’re able to get 25 uniformed and armed officers together in this state at one time. That’s a little over the top.”

Over the top or not, for the past year California has cracked down on the sale of ivory, as well as other animal parts and trophies. California Fish & Game wardens have raided auctions, flea markets and antique dealers. They have executed complicated “stings” to arrest Craigslist and eBay sellers.

This lot of pre-ban ivory is no longer saleable without proof that it is more than 100 years old.

Although it has been illegal to sell ivory in California since 1970, ivory sales are now an enforcement priority. U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Ca.) intends to make the penalties for dealing in ivory even tougher than they currently are by making it prosecutable under statutes used for other felonies such as drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering.

Despite California’s tough stance for the past year, dealers who regularly sell ivory have found ways to work-around the situation. But, a “California work-around” is no longer possible.

On Feb. 11, 2014 the Federal government instituted a “near complete ban” on the commercial sale of African elephant ivory in the United States. The U.S. ban currently does not include ivory from Asian elephants or from whale bone and teeth. California makes no such distinction. Other states are considering tighter restraints on ivory sales, notably New York.

According to the White House, the U.S. is one of the world’s largest markets for illegal ivory. Demand has pushed the price of elephant ivory to over $1,500 per pound and Rhinoceros ivory to more than $45,000 per pound—higher than the price of gold.

One of the three stated purposes of the new regulations is to “reduce the demand for illegally traded wildlife.” The strategy is to make it difficult to trade in the parts of protected species, including ivory. The rules will indeed make it difficult to trade in ivory and anything made using ivory. Ownership of such items isn’t affected by the new rules, and owners may pass their ivory collectibles to heirs.

How the Ban Effects Dealers and Estates
The ivory crackdown puts small dealers and estate executors in an awkward position. Sometimes items made from ivory can be clearly identified: scrimshaw, statues, jewelry, piano keys and other items that are commonly known as being made from ivory. But what about items with decorative ivory trim? How are non-experts supposed to separate ivory trim from faux ivory (plastic) on pool cues, canes, clocks, toys, musical instruments and hundreds of other items? Chemical testing is available through a forensics lab, but such tests are expensive. High-value collectible ivory may be worth the cost of testing. The cost of testing small amounts of ivory may exceed the value of the item.

This vintage piccolo cannot be sold across state lines due to its ivory head.

For more information on identifying ivory, see the guide provided by the US Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory.

Ivory has long been used in the manufacture of stringed instruments. Guitars, mandolins, violins, banjos, ukuleles and dozens of other instruments have used ivory for decorative and functional purposes. Guitars, for example, may have ivory binding around the edge of the body to disguise and bind the edge joints. Ivory bridge saddles and nuts are commonly used to seat guitar strings. Musicians (and scientists) claim that ivory, being organic, has a cellular structure that allows for better transmission of a string’s vibrations and produces a better sound. Ivory has been used as purfling (trim) to prevent the edges of violins from splitting. Ivory tuning pegs are commonplace on acoustic instruments. Pianists old to enough to have experience playing on ivory piano keys agree that ivory piano keys are “less slippery” than plastic keys.

What the New Regulations Mean
Let’s take a look at the new federal regulations, and explore a few of the questions that they raise (the ivory referred to in the discussion below is elephant ivory unless noted):

1. No ivory can be imported, regardless of its country of origin. The former rule allowing the import of antique ivory no longer applies. It doesn’t matter how old an item is; if it contains ivory it cannot be imported. Of course, pianos having ivory keys have not been allowed for some time. But what are musicians travelling with vintage instruments to do? Will Customs agents confiscate Eric Clapton’s guitars or violins belonging to the Vienna Philharmonic? Perhaps not—if the instruments owner get an exemption, called a “CITES certificate.”

2. No ivory can be exported, except for “bona fide antiques,” non-commercial items and certain items allowed under the Endangered Species Act. A “bona fide antique”—according to Customs rules—is one that is more than 100 years old. Dealers won’t be able to sell ivory-trimmed instruments to overseas customers, and touring musicians will have to settle for playing on their newer instruments and leave their vintage instruments behind. 

New regulations make violin bows such as this one (with an ivory frog) illegal to import, even though it is more than 100 years old.

3. Sales across state lines are banned, except in the case of antiques where “documented evidence of age” is provided. Obtaining such documentation will be practically impossible since such documentation was not issued 100 years ago (the items were legal then). Musicians will be able to travel with their instruments, but dealers won’t be able to sell ivory out-of-state unless they can prove that their items are at least 100 years old.

4. Sales within a state are prohibited, unless a seller can demonstrate that the ivory was lawfully imported prior to 1990 (or prior to 1975 if it’s Asian ivory). Some modern guitars use parts made using “fossil ivory” (i.e., ivory taken from the tusks of wooly mammoths found in North America). Fossil ivory is not illegal because it’s not elephant ivory and it meets the age requirement. But if such parts are used on an instrument you own—or intend to buy—I suggest that you keep the documentation with the instrument. Your local Fish & Game Warden might not be able to tell the difference between African elephant ivory and wooly mammoth ivory.

The “sales within a state” rule adversely affects private owners and estate executors as well as dealers. Musical instruments and goods (containing ivory) that were legally obtained and are legally owned cannot be sold without proof that the items were obtained before 1990 (the date of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Owners might still have a bill of sale, but how are executors going to locate such documentation?

Perhaps the most severe (yet unintended) consequence of the new regulations is the effect they have on the value of collections. If the value of a collection is calculated on the basis of market value—the price at which a willing seller sells to a willing buyer—then what happens to value when sellers cannot sell (or the pool of buyers is greatly reduced)? Certainly, values will be reduced in legal markets.

The new regulations will be enforced at the state level. Since state law enforcement agencies are already over-burdened, it’s not clear how effective enforcement will be. If California’s style of enforcement gives any clues, dealers and auctioneers will be the first to be targeted. Online sales venues like eBay and Craigslist will also be monitored. Certainly, the interstate ban will be difficult to enforce. Nevertheless, executors, dealers and collectors should proceed with caution.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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  • Rob

    I’d like to note that much of what is considered mammoth ivory is more than just teeth it also encompasses bone. But, it is a moot point still as it is just fossilized. It is as much bone/ivory as petrified wood is tree.

    • kiff!

      Fossilization implies that the organic material has been replaced by mineral matter, as you previously stated with a petrified tree. There is no actual wood left in a full-petrified tree, the wood having been replaced by quartz or other silicate, via perminerialization. Mammoth ivory is simply old, well-preserved tusk material that retains its original, organic matter.

  • Good Lord. I am all for bans on ivory and protecting the African Elephant from poaching, but as an antiques dealer I have to hope some common sense is employed when this new, stricter version of the ban is applied to antiques. Amongst other things, I deal in miniature portraits painted on ivory wafers that clearly date from the late 18th/early 19th c., but I can’t provide certification of that! Ivory was a popular component in furniture, tea caddies, and decorative boxes (as lock escutcheons), and was also widely used as decorative inlay throughout the decorative arts (as in the instruments mentioned above)…if this ban is enforced to the letter of the law, it will be devastating to the antiques trade. I rarely trade in anything newer than 1840, but to have to produce certification of age of every item which has an ivory element, however tiny, (beyond the my expert opinion and that of my peers in the trade, that is) is an impossibility. And very few items on the market have the kind of provenance that could serve as proof.

  • mr.peabody

    Peabody here….

    We now have an embryonic Taliban in the US, bent on destroying cultural items as if their ‘noble’ acts have any bearing on animals long dead.

    What’s next, my velvet Elvis painting because it doesn’t meet some obscure bureaucratic regulation that all Elvis paintings must be of his 1950’s look and not his fat and drugged 1970’s schtick?

    The zealotry motivating a governmental bent on destroying things should be alarming to all of us.

    Up next? The EPA is taking a hard look at wood stoves. Good thing The Vatican isn’t located in Sheboygan, eh?

  • Wayne,

    I wanted to thank you for writing this informative and timely article.

    It affects us all people in the business, people who need to sell, and I really appreciated this investigative approach.

    Thanks again,


    • Thanks, Martin; I’ve glad it proved helpful. Although I am disturbed by the ban on interstate commerce, I believe the Feds are on shaky ground regarding what can and can’t be sold within a state. We’ll see how this plays out this year; still too early to tell the extent to which values will be affected

  • Tallents Hardy

    As a dealer for many years I would like to commend the stance that the US and other governments has taken to try and protect the mass slaughter of the African elephant and rhino.
    In fact I would like to know where on earth all this “antique” carved Chinese ivory is coming from.
    There is clearly way to much Chinese inventory of all kinds being sold as antique in this country and I would guess it is being brought in and distributed amongst the auction houses and it is the latter that should make a bigger effort to patrol their consignors or they will be patrolled.
    Its all within the rules of Karma.

    Don’t deal in Ivory or Rhino, don’t be dishonest and don’t be greedy then our children and their off spring might get a chance to see these glorious creatures outside of a Zoo.

    • mr.peabody

      Peabody here, again….

      Certainly the Orient is the greatest offender of the trade. The crackdown should concentrate there on three fronts: the procurement, the production, and the export of the new ivory.

      However, there are objects that are of unquestionable age and their ban is absolutely ludicrous; e.g., the rule and scientific instrument trades that used ivory up until ca. World War I.

      To name a few notable companies, Stanley in the US and Negretti&Zambra in the UK produced all sorts of ivory rules, and all of its manufacture can be traced to a time long ago. Over time, their production of ivory products decreased significantly perhaps due to the difficulty of obtaining ivory or due to a public that no longer wanted such items. Both firms ultimately dropped that material from their production during the 1920’s.

      There is no good reason at all to ban such items, produced by manufacturers with detailed histories as it’s known exactly when they stopped the use of ivory.

      What good does it do for these items to be seized and destroyed other than to produce a temporary sense of ‘feel goodism’?

      re: your children to see elephants in the wild, no argument there.

      But, do you lament the fact that your children can’t see saber tooth tigers here in North America? There are more species extinct than there are alive now, and how many of those do you miss?

      • I recently saw something on 60 Minutes about ivory in China. They are the ones that are causing all the slaughter, but it was stated that 70% of the Chinese population doesn’t know where it comes from! I think the Chinese government needs to educate their consumers before all these creatures are gone. Something that is not taking place at the moment.

        As for obvious antiques, anyone in the business can tell what is and what is not. Just walking a field in Brimfield last fall I saw a guy trying to sell one of two statues he had to an Asian women. They were NOT antiques. But as for the those that are, should this history also be wiped out as if it never happened? What about the talent of our ancestors (from whatever country)? It was the material available at the time, and used by many talented artists. Shouldn’t that be preserved? I would hope that those on this side of the fence would put up a fight in the courts for common sense to prevail.

    • icetrout

      ivory ban dose nothing to stop root cause of the “6th Extinction” HUMAN OVERPOPULATION…

  • Maggie Turnipseed


    I feel the value of ivory has already strongly felt the effects of the ban. Most online venues no longer allow the selling of Ivory ,however they do have a few exceptions, Make sure you read the policies before you buy or sell Ivory on a online marketplace.

    You see some online dealers stating a piece is faux Ivory when clearly it is indeed Ivory.

    As an appraiser, there is a shrinking marketplace to find comparable sales documentation. I would find it very difficult to appraise any Ivory in today’s market.

    It will be interesting to see how this all plays out for Antique Ivory.

    • I agree, Maggie. I wouldn’t want to appraise any ivory, either. The ban will also make it more difficult to appraise ivory-trimmed musical instruments and paraphernalia. I’ll be watching vintage guitar dealers to see how they handle this.

  • The Federal Government under the guise of the Department of Fish and Game
    has once again took away and eroded are individual freedoms.
    This act is both ludicrous and hypocritical as this banning of elephant is not evenly enforced and the exceptions give are to the rich hunter as stated in National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.

    Support Limited Sport-hunting of African Elephants: We will limit the number of African elephant sport-hunted trophies that an individual can import to two per hunter per year.
    What this means in my opinion is that if I am wealthy enough to go the Africa, This individual can kill two Elephants a year and bring there tusks back.
    Where as I being a person with more limited funds can’t own a ivory tea pot unless I can somehow prove it’s antiquity.
    This is wrong and Very Socialistic.

  • More great articles like this! Less wind and smoke from Harry Rinker!

  • Tallents Hardy

    Re Mr Peabody’s saber tooth tiger comment, I don’t think the
    extinction of that species was within man’s ability to control. This is.

  • Rick Bevilacqua

    I think it’s about time that a more strict approach was taken. With all the news, articles, pleas etc, US auction houses are still loaded with obviously new ivory, no questions asked. It still comes down to making a quick buck, no matter who suffers from it. I think pushing the ban to older items and musical instruments is ridiculous and unenforceable, but I think putting that fear out there may eventually do some good. ( Wouldn’t it be easier to audit the instrument makers rather than chase after individual instruments??) I’m just glad something has been done, even if it appears over the top. Modifications can be made over time so that enforcement becomes more practical. I sell ivory in my shop, but will cease immediately. I own 19thC ivory that I will keep and enjoy. That’s why I bought it, not as an investment. For those who did buy as an investment, it’s like any stock market pick – no guarantee it’s going to go up in value. Company’s go bankrupt everyday and their stock becomes worthless. And I really feel sorry for anyone who can’t afford to go to Africa to shoot an elephant. I guess that’s why there will never be peace on earth – human’s just have to kill something. Sorry for going off topic there.

    • You’re right about enforcement being a problem, Rick. I agree that the severity of the problem called for action, and this ban certainly sent a strong message. I admire your willingness to put principle over profit and remove the ivory from your shop.

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