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Ivory collectors, auctioneers call ban ‘sucker punch’
By Eric C. Rodenberg

The Obama Administration is waging open warfare against antique owners, collectors and auctioneers, say ivory collectors – many of whom may be treated as criminals for buying and selling ivory in the near future.

The repercussions of the Feb. 11 executive order effectively ban all sales of elephant ivory in the United States. In essence, the new regulations ban Americans from importing and, with narrow exceptions, exporting any item that contains even a flake of ivory. The rules do not ban private ownership, but they outlaw interstate and intrastate sales of ivory items, unless collectors meet what sellers describe as insurmountable hurdles.

Current U.S. regulations permit the sale of ivory that is more than 100 years old. However, in the future, sellers must provide documented proof that the piece of ivory in question is more than 100 years old.

Trouble is that very few Victorians artists – and early skilled ivory carvers and craftsmen – routinely left notarized statements attesting to the age of their medium.

So, for the most part, that relegates historical ivory pieces – inlaid gun pieces, canes and walking sticks, musical instruments, chess sets, netsukes and much, much more – to the scrap heap.

President Obama issued the executive order in response to the annihilation of elephants by poachers seeking to profit from the animal’s ivory tusks. The order is structured to clamp down on ivory movement into and throughout the United States.

“In the past decade, wildlife trafficking – the poaching or other taking of protected or managed species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their related parts and products – has escalated into an international crisis,” the directive reads. “Wildlife trafficking is both a critical conservation concern and a threat to global security with significant effects on the national interests of the United States and the interests of our partners around the world.”

The Obama Administration appointed an eight-member advisory panel that will formulate the new restrictions. Ivory owners and antique dealers are critical that the board is comprised of representatives who work in wildlife conservancy. No one, they say, is on board to represent the thousands of American ivory owners, collectors and dealers.

Another “high bar” set by the advisory panel has stipulated that ivory owners must prove their piece entered through one of 13 American imports authorized to sanction ivory goods.

But the kicker is none of those entry points existed before 1982.

“That simply makes it an impossible hurdle,” according to Lark Mason, a world renowned expert on Chinese Art and ivory. “I’m really angry about this. The elephants which provided this ivory are long dead. This does nothing to prevent elephant slaughter … if nothing else, it will drive it underground and hasten the destruction of these animals, while needlessly harassing American citizens.”

Mason equates the Obama “National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking” as analogous to Mao Zedong’s 1966-1976 China Cultural Revolution in which Red Guards were ordered to destroy artwork, sacred texts, temples and any object associated with the country’s pre-revolutionary past.

“I know people who are gouging ivory and turtle shell from their guns to make them commercially available,” Mason said. “There are people taking the ivory caps off of snuff bottles … if the spoons are ivory, they’re breaking those off in order to sell them. This is going on right now. It’s wrong-headed and is devastating. Something is wrong with our government … heavy-handed directives like this – where our government destroys art and antiques – shakes confidence in our leaders and erodes respect in our laws.”

The toll of the executive order on the antiques industry is incalculable. But, it’s huge.

“I’m 63 years old, and I’m not at the point of my life where I can take a 60 percent cut in my income,” says Kimball M. Sterling, a Johnson City, Tenn., auctioneer who has carved out a handsome niche as one of the world’s pre-eminent dealers in canes and walking sticks.

Ivory has been used for centuries as a chief decorative component in walking sticks.

The price of ivory is going up. And, in doing so, it’s going underground, according to Sterling, who has been in the auction business for 40 years.

“I’ve got a collector who has more than $5 million in his collection,” Sterling says. “He’s not going to get hurt. All these cane people know each other. When one old boy gets older and looks at the end of his life, he lets it out that he’s downsizing. It won’t hurt him … who it will hurt is the beginning collector that paid $200 for a cane. Now, that cane will be a $2,000 cane.”

Officials with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, adhering to the requirements of the Obama executive order, plan to have the new regulations in place by mid-year.

Sterling, who had been anticipating such radical changes in the ivory laws since last year, was the first private citizen to appear before the ivory advisory panel tasked with writing regulations in Washington, D.C., on March 20.

“I stood in front of them with a 350-year-old cane,” Sterling said. “Now the government claims that it can’t scientifically be determined whether a cane is new or over 100 years old. That may be, scientifically. But, you can blindfold me and I’ll tell you whether it’s an old cane or not – most good ivory people can. I can tell by the patina – you can’t fake that. You’ll see age cracks in older canes, certain patterns of striations, and you look how it’s made.

“You would think the government would want to include people who know about ivory on the panel. There’s one guy on the panel from eBay (Tod Cohen, the deputy general counsel of global government relations for eBay), and I said right there on the stand that eBay is the biggest dealer of poached ivory. Antique collectors know the difference.”

Before taking the stand, Sterling had given a gentleman in the audience a cane. “Before I left the stand, I asked that gentleman to stand up and show the cane. It had a little ivory on it, but the cane came from a split-rail fence that was hewn by Abraham Lincoln. Now what are you going to do, I asked them, keep American history in the hands of the people, or destroy it?”

At the time of the March 20 hearing, the government had a “drop dead” date of June 1. Sterling had scheduled an April 26 auction and tagged the sale “The Last Great Ivory Cane Auction.” Since then, he has amended the auction to simply great “Ivory Cane Auction” after the ivory advisory board was confronted in March by angry demonstrators with pointed questions.

Officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service have now set back the date for new regulations to the “end of August,” according to Sterling. The panel plans to reconvene meeting with the public in late June or early July.

With that, Sterling dropped “The Last” from his title and plans on taking ivory consignments for another cane sale this summer. The auctioneer added he is making preparations to appear before the next meeting of the ivory advisory panel later this summer in Washington, D.C.

Emanating from “D.C.” are myriad questions and confusions swirling within the midst of the Obama directive.

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