Do Auctions Have a Poached Ivory Problem?

An antiques dealer pleading guilty to trafficking poached wildlife has reignited a debate.

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Mar 11 2016, 8:50pm

Carved ivory figurines. Image: Matthias Rosenkranz/Flickr

Can you tell the difference between an antique ivory carving and one that came from an elephant poached just last month? How about a real ivory carving from one made out of bone?

These questions are at the heart of a perennial debate over the legal ivory trade that once again came to a head after an antiques dealer pleaded guilty to trafficking poach wildlife and pawning them off as fakes.

Earlier this week, federal prosecutors revealed that a prominent auction house official had pleaded guilty to helping traffic elephant ivory, rhino horn, and coral through his auction house: I.M. Chait Gallery/Auctioneers.

Joseph Chait could face 10 years in prison for allegedly falsifying customs forms to disguise the poached animal parts as "bone" and underrepresent their value. Chait is accused of reporting on customs forms that a rhino horn carving that sold for $230,000 at auction was worth $108.75 and made of plastic. Prosecutors also say Chait helped supply smugglers with packing material, and shipping wildlife products without declaring them. It's a troubling case that highlights how entangled the illegal, poached ivory market is with the legal, antique ivory trade.

"This case demonstrates the insidious nature of wildlife trafficking, showing how these activities permeate our society in many social, economic and cultural areas," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a press release.

For wildlife conservation groups, the news wasn't particularly surprising. The antiques world has long had an ivory problem, though how pervasive the problem is is a major point of debate. It's illegal to buy, sell, import, and export poached ivory in the US, and most countries around the world, ever since the 1990 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) ban on the international trade of ivory. But it's still legal to trade old ivory—such as antique instruments, artworks, and objects like billiard balls—as long as it was already in the US before January 18, 1990 (when the CITES ban went into effect) or has a certificate verifying it was taken from the wild prior to 1976 (when elephants were first listed by CITES).

An Asian elephant on the roadside in India. Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

Many pieces that were in the country before the ban don't have any documentation proving they're antiques, and they don't legally need any. With an estimated 96 elephants killed every day by poachers, the illegal trade is still alive and well, and many wildlife conservation groups argue that as long as the legal trade exists, poached ivory will be able to circulate.

You might think it's easy to tell the difference between recently poached ivory and a family heirloom chess set, but that's often not true. Because of this, in 2013, President Obama signed an executive order to significantly crackdown on the wildlife trade in the US. The Fish and Wildlife Services have been trying to sort out the best way to do that—new regulations are expected later this year—while lawmakers have started to take steps at the state level. New Jersey has outright banned the sale of any ivory (antique or otherwise), as has California, where a lawsuit has been filed challenging the law.

Though often regarded as a problem restricted to Asia, the US has the second biggest ivory market in the world, and a lot of that ivory is traded at auction. A 2014 audit by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) found 4,186 ivory lots offered for sale by US online auctions in a nine-week period, for an average of 465 lots per week and an estimated 24,186 lots per year. In a previous investigation, IFAW learned there were nearly 1,000 illegal ivory imports seized at the border from 2009 to 2012, and another 250 exports were seized. Since INTERPOL estimates seized contraband only represents about 10 percent of what's actually smuggled across borders, much more poached ivory is likely entering the US each year. And where does all that ivory go?

"We do have a very, very large ivory market, but most people assume because we have such a strong rule of law that it's all legal," said Beth Allgood, campaigns manager at IFAW. "If poached ivory is getting into our market, then we could be contributing to the current poaching crisis."

This isn't to say there are lots of unscrupulous auction houses knowingly hawking poached animal parts, but without requirements for proper documentation, can they really know for sure what's antique? Yes, they can, said Scott Defrin, an expert in antique European ivory carvings and a spokesperson for the Art and Antique Dealers League of America, a trade organization that has actively opposed stricter legislation on ivory trade.

"It takes years of experience to be able to distinguish between something that's old and something that's recently manufactured," Defrin said. "It's the same methodology curators use to tell the difference between what's an old bronze and a new bronze. The same thing goes for marbles and paintings that are unsigned and undated."

Defrin pointed out that in the Chait case, the accused seems to have known the piece was old because he allegedly lied about it. It's not as if the auctioneer was tricked. While illegal ivory may be making its way into commercial markets, Defrin said it's not a major issue in the world of antiques.

"The demand for antique ivory carvings comes from collectors who are interested in old things. They're not interested in new things," Defrin said.

Still, he said the AADLA would like to work with lawmakers to build legislation that can improve regulations without snuffing out dealers working in good faith. Defrin suggested a committee that could vet each individual piece of ivory listed for auction and issue permits, we could require fees that could then be directed to elephant conservation.

"There always comes a time in history when you just have to make a decision."

But the problem is that any regulation would apply not just to high-end art dealers, but anyone selling ivory, and that leaves gaps where illegal ivory can still circulate, according to Allgood. She commended members of the industry actively working to root out illegal ivory, including LiveAuctioneers.com—an aggregator of online antiques auction listings that came to IFAW to find out how the site could improve. The site now enforces strict requirements for all animal part auctions, including posted documentation on the listing indicating the item is indeed an antique. Ultimately, though, Allgood said the only way to really close the door on illegal wildlife trade is to remove the cloak provided by the legal trade.

"Yes, it's unfortunate that you're stuck with your family heirloom, but there always comes a time in history when you just have to make a decision," Allgood said. "It's cheaper to make things with child labor, but we made a decision that that just wasn't okay anymore. That's just a time where you need to decide that the continued existence of elephants is actually more important than being able to sell a family heirloom."