26 June 2017
Lady Victoria Borwick
British Antique Dealers’ Association
14 Dufferin St
London EC1Y 8PD
Dear Lady Borwick,
We are a grassroots group fighting to save and protect elephants, and we’re writing to you today about the ivory trade in this country and the role of the antiques industry.
As you know, the UK is a global hub for the ivory trade, making up 31% of all ivory sales in Europe. This trade serves as a cover for illegal ivory (defined as post-1947) to enter the market – a situation that feeds directly into the ongoing poaching crisis. Thousands of pieces of ivory without proof of age or provenance are for sale on market stalls throughout the UK, as well as on online marketplaces.
You also know that the ongoing global ivory trade perpetuates the killing of elephants in Africa, at a rate of approximately 20-30,000 each year.
These facts alone dictate the need for the UK to close its ivory market once and for all. Additionally, the government has twice pledged to ban ivory, in 2010 and 2015, before abandoning this pledge in its 2017 manifesto. The antiques trade in the UK, championed by BADA and by you when in Parliament, has lobbied hard against a ban on ivory, and will certainly be cheered by the government dropping its pledge.
No one else is cheering though. It is disheartening to see the narrow interests of a small group of merchants take priority over actions to help preserve an entire species from extinction. No argument that puts a higher value on a dusty old object than on the life of a living elephant is tenable, and will never be accepted by the British populace (85% of whom support a total ban).
The removal of the pledge to ban ivory will also be seen as a blow to African countries to whom the UK committed support at the CITES conference in Johannesburg last September.
Rather than rehash the arguments, we’d like to address comments you made in correspondence with Tom Deakin, a member of our group, which he shared with us.
You said: ‘I don’t believe any Conservative or anyone from any Party wants to kill elephants, but what are we going to do with the antique ivory here and across the world?’
The ‘but’ represents a false dichotomy. Campaigners for a trade ban don’t advocate doing anything with antique ivory in public or private collections, so this is a red herring. Antique ivory objects in museums or collections can remain where they are; it would just be illegal to buy or sell them. They would lose their monetary value, nothing more. So the question is rather: What is more important? Retaining the commercial value of ivory or stripping it of such value to help save elephants?
You repeatedly make clear your paramount concern for artworks:
‘We can and should preserve works of art that are our shared cultural inheritance for future generations, while at the same time doing everything in our power to ensure that these terrible assaults on wildlife do not continue. The next generation need to be able to grow up in a world with healthy herds of elephants.’
Healthy herds of elephants is a scenario that can only come about if poaching ends. Poaching will only end when demand for ivory dries up, and that will only happen when all countries with an ivory market implement laws to shut them down. The issue of cultural inheritance doesn’t enter the equation, as we are not advocating the destruction of antique ivory nor taking away ivory in anyone’s possession. No one will be prevented from inheriting the family piano or ivory-handled forks or netsuke collection, and no museum would be prevented from moving an ivory item to another museum. To suggest otherwise only serves to mislead the public and to make the call for a ban look far more draconian than it really is.
But you already acknowledged this yourself. In the parliamentary debate on the subject in February, you said you stood corrected by a fellow MP who made the point that ‘Nothing will be destroyed; all those pieces of artwork will still exist. What we are talking about is not encouraging ivory to be poached and elephants to be killed because there is a market in ivory today.’
Yet you continue to blur the lines and push the angle that antique ivory objects will somehow suffer if trade in them is banned. You can only mean their monetary value will suffer.
The second misconception is that of dating ivory with certainty. In the same debate you maintained that genuine experts can ‘easily see the difference’ between ‘genuine works of art’ and modern ivory. This is arguable. A recent report has shown that 75% of antique dealers admit knowing colleagues happy to pass off modern ivory as older and therefore legal. This suggests a large proportion of dealers know that their industry is complicit in the sale of illegal ivory, and that consumers are being misled.
Commenting on this report, Charlie Mayhew of Tusk said: ‘As long as the government allows the British ivory market to flourish in its current form – with modern ivory passed off as old – there will be a direct link from sale rooms and stall-holders to African savanna, with the market encouraged by traders leading to the killing of even more elephants.’
The link has been proven time and again. What further evidence do antiques dealers need? How long will they continue to insist on seeing other ‘proof’? How does the trade square its anti-poaching stance with selling the very products of poaching, of whatever date?
Some antiques dealers have understood there is no way of squaring it, and that a moral choice must be made. John Albrecht, of Australian auctioneers Leonard Joel, didn’t have any difficult seeing the connection:
‘You could call me ‘born again’ on this issue. As an auction house, you get bogged down in talking about ivory in terms of age and antiquity and beauty and cultural significance and intellectualising its importance in decorative arts. But I now understand that when an auction house agrees to trade in ivory, then they put a value on it and help to create a market. By doing that, you’re a party to what’s happening to elephants because any piece of ivory, however beautiful, always originates from the slaughter of an animal. Now I look at ivory objects I once thought were lovely and they absolutely repulse me.’
Closing the trade in ivory in the UK would not only send a clear and unequivocal message to dealers and auctioneers domestically, but would demonstrate on the global stage that the UK is serious about saving elephants and ending the poaching crisis.
We ask you, as president of BADA, to reconsider your organization’s stance and to put the full support of BADA and the antiques trade behind a ban on trading ivory. We hope you will agree that the survival of elephants is a far graver concern than the trading of ornaments.
Action for Elephants UK