Ivory Law Introduced in New York; Sotheby's and Christies Announce Opposition
Legislation to close New York state as a market for ivory sales to help prevent elephant extinction and to reduce funding sources for terrorists has been introduced by Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney. The bill was passed 28-0 by the Environmental Conservation Committee.
Following a January hearing in New York City, legislation has been drawn that will “prohibit the sale, offer for sale, purchase, trade, barter, or distribution other than to a legal beneficiary of an ivory article.” The bill “authorizes the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to adopt rules and regulations, following the public hearing, to include any animal parts containing ivory in the prohibitions provided that such parts are from such animals classified as endangered or threatened.”
Assemblyman Sweeney said the Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that 96 elephants are killed every day in Africa, which means one elephant dies every 15 minutes, and that there has been a 76% decline in elephant population since 2002.Zz
At the January hearing in New York City, “representatives from the nations of Tanzania and Botswana expressed support for an ivory sales ban, citing their efforts to decrease poaching in the face of increased demand for ivory. The scale of the problem is such that the president of the United Republic of Tanzania, H.E. Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete…at the United Nations…called for an international community to close down the ivory markets,” explained Sweeney.
The ambassador also cited the link between terrorism and illegal ivory sales, including the murder of park rangers, and said that “trafficking is increasingly associated with rebel terrorist groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Al-Shabaab, an Al Qaeda terrorist cell in East Africa.”
Assemblyman Sweeney said, “These people were also responsible for the terrorist bombing in Kenya last year. This is one of the ways they finance their operations. Actually there is a dual concern here. One is the illegal poaching itself, which will eventually drive African elephants to extinction, but the other issue here is the terrorist organizations are using the illegal ivory to fund their operations.”
The Humane Society of the United States supports the legislation, saying it “would provide tools for law enforcement to protect the endangered species and also aid in combating international terrorism.”
The Environmental Advocates of New York is also in support and said that though ivory that predates the 1989 ban on ivory can be traded, it is almost impossible to distinguish this “pre-convention ivory” from illegal ivory. “Prohibiting the sale, transfer, and purchase will raise consumer awareness and reduce financial incentives that build poaching pressures.”
The Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter expressed its support for the legislation in a memorandum that stated “as long as the demand for ivory remains, the legal trade of ivory will continue to serve as a front and will also continue to drive the criminal elephant poaching practice in Africa. Because of the continued demand for ivory, African elephants are being slaughtered at an unprecedented rate.”
It continued, “Today’s ivory traffickers are well-organized groups that operate as transitional criminal networks and often traffic other illegal substances such as narcotics and weapons. Because of these networks’ experience, it is extremely difficult to crack down on ivory trafficking.”
Regarding the sale of antique ivory, Sweeney said, “The existing law makes exceptions for older ivory. The problem is, according to the testimony we received at the hearing, there is not any way short of essentially dismantling the ivory object to determine what is antique and what is not. You can’t tell between ivory that was taken a week ago and ivory that was taken fifty years ago, certainly not by looking at it. That’s the problem. That’s part of the problem the enforcement people have if somebody is willing to falsify the paperwork and say that it is an antique, which is something they tell us happens frequently. Short of essentially dismantling the piece to do the typical research, you can’t tell. You can’t even tell if it’s mammoth ivory…the elephants of millions of years ago, whose tusks are still found in the ground. You can’t distinguish between mammoth ivory and elephant ivory; you can’t even always distinguish between elephant ivory and ivory from other animals that may or may not be threatened or endangered, and so that’s one of the problems that they have been having, and that’s why we feel that a ban is what is needed,” said Sweeney.
“The legislation would impact antiques and auctions, all of that, and we are willing to have, and we have had, some discussions with the folks who are involved in those activities, and they’re telling us how they operate and what we need to do, and we are also getting information from the enforcement folks at U.S. Fish and Wildlife and New York DEC that there are some bad actors out there in both the auction houses and the dealers who aren’t doing the right thing, who are certifying the ivory is antique ivory when it is not antique ivory.
“Most of the activity by its nature is occurring in New York City because that’s where you have the auction houses, antique dealers, and that’s where you have many of the museums. That is where most of the illegal ivory is being imported into. It’s stuck in shipping containers, and it’s brought over, and obviously having limited resources, the federal folks, unless they get a tip that it’s in a container somewhere, they don’t know that it’s there, so it gets into the country, and then some shady dealer signs a certificate saying its antique ivory, and the next thing you know, bingo, it’s legal,” said Sweeney.
Christie’s opposes the proposed legislation because it “would go well beyond what is needed to stop the slaughter of elephants for illegal elephant ivory and would end the legal and legitimate trade of antiquated objects containing ivory.”
Christie’s claims these are works such as ancient sculpture, furniture from the 18th century, objects of virtu, Japanese netsuke, old masters paintings and frames, musical instruments, and 18th-century silverware.
Christie’s said legislation strengthening New York’s licensing process, as well as increasing enforcement and penalties “may be appropriate,” but the legislation should also include an exception for “reputable museums, auction houses and others in the legitimate art market,” so they may sell vetted antiques containing ivory.
Sotheby’s calls for an amendment to the proposed legislation. “Though Sotheby’s applauds the intent of this bill, namely the reduction of illegal poaching and protection of endangered species, Sotheby’s opposes the bill in its current form because it will eliminate the important market for valuable works of art and other collectibles that are antique or were made well before the international regulation of ivory.”
“The new legislation significantly increases the penalties because the penalties are very small right now,” said Sweeney. “So there’s no big money being made and very little disincentive to anybody because the penalties are so light, like two thousand dollars. The new bill would increase the penalties to a Class D felony and a Class E felony for repeat offenders, if it’s above a certain dollar amount.”
“Under the new legislation, the penalties would be increased. A Class D felony would cost $25,000, and a Class E felony would go to $250,000. Repeat offense fines would be $4000 per article or three times the cost of the article,” Sweeney said.
The DEC will be required to prepare a report no later than January 1, 2020, outlining the enforcement activities and recommendations regarding any necessary changes, including but not limited to the extension or repeal of this bill.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest