An Antique Dealer's Blog: Looking at English Furniture
The New York Times had an article about reliable polling in the political realm yesterday (http://nyti.ms/1na5rUV ) stating that biased polls "employ dubious weighting and sampling practices." Of course the greatest poll blunder in the recent past was the one used by Mitt Romney, who believed he was going to win in 2012. But I have a beef with polls regarding issues as well.
The issue that I am interested in, the legality of antique ivory, is being affected by the slaughter of elephants. I am told that antique ivory generates a passion for more ivory, including newly poached ivory, as if owning ivory was an addiction. That is absurd. And yet polls conducted by conservationists, whose side I am, in fact, on, lean on such disinformation. Other than the fact that antique ivory comes from elephants, the slaughter has no relation to antique ivory. Any opinion poll, unless it is very clearly worded, will endorse the position that all ivory should be banned.
What is being lost when we rely on polls that are clearly of the moment and/or are being heavily influenced by some form of propaganda? To my mind, It is a bit like looking at a three dimensional problem through a one dimensional lens. In regard to antique ivory, there is a cultural relevance that is being ignored. It is odd that the Democrats, who are hot on the issue of banning ivory, don't see that in their haste to be politically correct that they are trampling on the culture of all mankind.
I don't think that the blindness that can be generated by weighted polls is the sole problem with the ivory issue. I also feel that politicians enter into arenas in which they are completely ignorant simply because of poll numbers. In other words, politicians looking for safe, vote getting issues, jump into areas about which they know nothing for the sake of positive publicity. This compounds the problem making any issue even more difficult to understand because it pits one side against the other and generates inane partisan debate.
Could things get more complicated? Yes, because the polling never stops. Numbers are used like bludgeons to score points. Their reliability should be questioned. I am not talking solely about ivory at this point. This is our society. Clear, rational and moral action is set aside in favor of what a poll might say. This is not only absurd, it is pathetic.
I was wondering about the value of polls the other day when it became clear to me that polling isn't a problem. The problem I perceive has to do with politicians who make decisions according to polls. This was made particularly clear by the email I read by one New York politician who claimed that 80% of New Yorkers wanted to ban ivory to save elephants and that passing such a law was a a slam dunk, no brainer thing to do. So much for having principles.
There are so many flaws to the construct of any poll. The foremost has to do with how a question is formatted. Then you might need to know how it was asked--by telephone, on the street, etc. The order of the questions has significance as well. Imagine the following three questions. Do you know that elephants are being killed for ivory? Do you want to see this stopped? Do you think the sale of all ivory should be banned? Once the first question has been posed, the answers to the second two questions are virtually a no brainer.
Governing by poll inevitably leads to mediocrity. Nuance is removed when someone is being guided by polls just as the inevitable answers to the three questions above ignores thousands of years of cultural development by focusing on one aspect of a crisis. Indeed, crises lend themselves to draconian measures, something all dictators have exploited through time in order to increase their control.
I would love to start a movement to get people to resist polling for a year, perhaps the year running up to the next presidential election. Let's hear what the candidates have to say without the benefit of a poll to guide them. I would love to know if they could figure out how to think, to run a course of thought to a conclusion based on their experience and brain power. This might just be too much to ask.
I think about the function of museums all the time. What real purpose do they serve? The answer, of course, has to do with knowledge of the past. Or, at least I think that was the original function of museums. There might also have been an idea of presenting a picture of places that were far flung and remote to the average citizen. Is that function relevant today? I am not so sure, although perhaps it is for some museums. Certainly, you can go to the Metropolitan Museum, for example, and still have that experience, but today museums seem to want to present culture in a particular light, focusing on what they see as current and contemporary and worthy for our consideration. That is a responsibility and because it has been mishandled so many times in the past, museums are gun shy, in my opinion, about saying, “no”, even to some really strange ideas.
I just read John Banville’s novel, “The Sea”, a Mann Booker Prize winner that is a sensuous and vivid exploration of the past, specific times within the narrator’s life that he continues to try and grasp and come to terms with. Banville’s prose is poetic and painterly which heightens the confusion the narrator feels about these events. Clearly, the past needs interpretation as it can be read, and then read again, into almost any version that fits the psychological holes that need filling. Interpretation essentially becomes a function of necessity with the translation of events subtly changing. Inconvenient truths are possibly not remembered to enable the process. We don't know nor does it matter.
As I see it, the presentation of culture, any culture but particularly contemporary culture, to a museum audience is a tricky thing. Interpretation is necessarily involved and, as in Banville’s book, we know that interpretations change. I certainly don’t mind museums trying to do this. In fact, it is a relevant point of view, but it will almost always put a museum and its mission under close scrutiny, if not today, then in the future. This judgment will be necessarily focused on what and why museums have acquired the pieces they have--they are public trusts, after all. In some cases, I am quite certain, they will seem prescient, but in others—who knows? And is there any shame in being wrong? Not really because the mere fact that a museum, particularly large established museums, takes a stab at something will, in some way, give that idea credence. To my way of thinking, it is a rather peculiar state of affairs.
The Summer Exhibition of the Olympia Fine Arts Fair used to be one of the great events in London in the month of June. Olympia would open on the first Friday in June and then the Grosvenor House Fair would open the following Wednesday. It was a time when you could do some very good business, both buying and selling. But since the close of the Grosvenor House Fair five years ago and the opening of Masterpiece, which opens at the end of June, the incentive for attending Olympia, at least from my point of view, has vastly diminished.
The primary reason is that the fairs are now too far apart in date and of the two, I would rather see what is happening at Masterpiece. Masterpiece, having those dealers at the apex of the market, is what drives the market, not Olympia. This is a great regret as I have bought many wonderful items at Olympia over the years and, I have to say, that the level of knowledge of many of the Olympia dealers is such that they often uncover great and rare items. It was a great fair for visiting Americans in many, many ways with enough items available that you could be assured of getting something quite good.
The business has changed, of course, and there is less business happening all around. But I feel that the (bad) timing of Olympia is no different than the bad timing that auction houses, particularly in New York, have as well. I know that it is difficult for the houses to have French, English, American and continental sales as they did in the past, but the goods are now so diffuse that collectors are lost among all the catalogs they receive. Somehow, there needs to be a realignment of sales so that people who wish to buy can know when the items they are interested come up for sale.
It has been said that competition helps, not hinders a market. More sales of similar goods clustered together on a regular basis will only help the market. The only auction house doing the same thing they did fifteen years ago is Doyle Galleries and that regularity is, I would assert, one of the reasons why their sales have picked up over the last year. Sotheby’s and Christie’s, I suppose, feel that they have been slapped hard on the wrist for collusion and are chary of talking to each other about anything at all. I think that is a sad state of affairs although it is Olympia that I really miss, because there you were aiding and abetting the people in your own market when you bought something.
I read the latest Julian Barnes novel over the weekend, “The Sense of an Ending” in which he talks about how certain memories that seem so one dimensional actually have greater depth upon re-examination. This happened to me over the weekend as I remembered a gift from my mother on my graduation from college. The gift was three books on artists, two of which I remember, one on Louise Nevelson and the other on Isamu Noguchi, both sculptors. Noguchi was almost lost to my memory until I went to his museum this weekend in Queens.
The museum is great and so is a lot of Noguchi’s work. I particularly enjoyed the small number of drawings in one room that were done in Paris in the 1920’s when Noguchi was in his twenties. His sense of line and surface were extraordinarily fine, in my opinion, something that presages the work of his final years, at least as far as I can see. The space is Noguchi’s old studio and it has been cleverly converted into a series of rooms that highlight different eras of Noguchi’s life. It is, for me at least, the first room that you walk into where you see the true power of Noguchi’s art.
The aging process clearly delineates an artist’s work. A chronological display will reveal the growth of both ability and vision of an artist. Some artists just continue to blossom finding new directions and refining their craft. Noguchi certainly did so as his work with stone morphed into a less is more aesthetic. A great deal more in my opinion as huge chunks of stone have small areas of textured surfaces, either polished or chiseled with the remainder left au naturel. The effect is very powerful. It reminds me of the Bob Seger line, “what to leave in, what to leave out.”
One thing I know about myself, however, is that I love surfaces. The attraction of English furniture is certainly in the design, but it is also in the surface. All wood, when treated well, will become something more than what it started out as. Time, not unlike the way in which it affects an artist, mellows timber and gives it a dimension that was theretofore non-existent. Noguchi stopped playing with his surfaces, a lesson that many restorers and antique dealers should learn as well.
I attended the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Jacob Javits Center on Sunday. There were miles of aisles and it almost seemed daunting, except, of course, that I am looking at furniture. And there were some great things to see. Foremost in my mind was the folding furniture made by a company in Hoboken called Folditure. They make chairs and tables that fold up completely flat and, from my heart, I have to say they were truly marvelous. The technology and sophistication of the design are just amazing and that the chairs fold flat to ¾” is spectacular.
Creativity in the 18th century appears as boring to non-existent, the same old, same old, cabriole legs, splat backs, etc. I understand why that characterization is made, but I would suggest that it doesn’t hold weight, particularly for high end furniture of the period. Furthermore, the creativity expressed by makers when transitioning from one style to another often led to unique pieces that combined numerous styles in one piece of furniture. That creativity was subtle, of course, but it was also unique to that maker. When this furniture is good, it is superb. Occasionally it missed as well.
The dimension of creativity today is broader than the 18th century. The variety of materials that contemporary makers can use is almost limitless. Furthermore, machinery helps in realizing some of the more fantastical designs from the point of view of design and construction. In the 18th century, craft was king and the craftsmen of the period had extensive apprenticeships and training. Ergo, design was a function of using those talents to their fullest extent. The differences between then and now seem wide, but they aren’t as wide as you might imagine. After all, the human body hasn’t changed all that much.
I will admit to having some trepidation about defending the trade in ivory. There are two reasons. The foremost is that moral arguments are very hard to rebut. They always seem like such good ideas when they are proposed. The second reason is that my self-interest could be seen as being entirely selfish. On the one hand, I want to be able to do what I do and on the other hand, elephants are dying. How can I reconcile what seems like wanton disregard to the plight of a species?
Of course, I don’t truly believe that what I want is selfish. That is because I know how to distinguish old ivory in the kinds of pieces that I trade. Indeed, all the antique dealers in their various specialties that I know, can quickly tell you what is and is not old. For the reputable antiques trade, this has never been a problem. We no more wish to sell fakes or look-alikes than fly to the moon. It is our job to determine authenticity and if we make a mistake, we often pay dearly for it.
This is the heart of the matter, in my opinion. To think that any of the people in the two top antique organizations would want to deal with poached ivory in any way at all is to misunderstand how we feel about our work as well as the morality of elephant depradation. We care about both. Hence, our solution to the dilemma seems fairly simple to us. Create a data base of those pieces that use pre-ban ivory. It will help to enlighten customs about what is and isn’t old and it will help to save the species.
The moral argument of banning the trade in all ivory needs very careful assessment. The idea behind it is fine, but the reality of implementing such a ban neither addresses the elephant’s plight nor the effects such a ban would have in demonetizing all antique ivory. Many people may comply with the new law, but many may not. What kind of enforcement will ensue? What do you do with someone who has sold a piece of ivory they have owned for generations? There is a Kafkaesque dimension to this scenario.
In the end, I feel that those wishing to ban the trade in all ivory must also do due diligence in understanding just what their law will and will not do. Is the moral high ground worth it? Is an ivory ban that doesn’t truly address the elephant’s plight valid, or is it just smoke and mirrors? The American public has many facets of opinion—one facet will applaud this legislation while others may feel it to be inadequate. I am one of the latter and it is because I, too, truly care about the elephant.
I visited the World Wildlife Fund website the other day. It is a terrific site that is devoted to the struggle of seeing our world’s ecosystem remain in balance. That includes climate change, over fishing and animal extinction. Their goal is essentially to get people to donate money to pursue programs that will allow them to pay for lobbyists to get legislation enacted. They also wish to encourage responsible behavior on the part of world governments, a goal that seems somewhat elusive in even the most idealistic of moments.
I applaud their efforts. I would like them to be successful for the most part, but I am beginning to wonder if they can be at all effective. I think this way because I oppose their current campaign of what they call a campaign to save the elephant. The cornerstone of the campaign is to stop all trading in ivory, no matter how old it may be. This is, they believe, the moral imperative that must be enacted to alert the world and to put a halt to the slaughter of elephants. It is an emotional approach that resonates deeply with animal lovers, but which, on examination, disregards some practical realities.
There is no question that the ivory from slaughtered elephants is being used to make goods, some of which are selling in America. Stopping the trade in ivory will certainly put a halt to the trade in this ivory. But how much of it is being sold in America? Apparently, 35,000 elephants are being slaughtered each year. A single tusk weighs close to 250 pounds so 35,000 elephants would yield up to 17,500,000 pounds of ivory. How much has been found in America? According to the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) report of 2013, only two tons or 4,000 pounds of illegal ivory was confiscated. That represents eight elephants.
My numbers may be slightly skewed, but even if they are off by 50%, it is clear that the majority of illegal ivory is not coming anywhere near the US. My questions for the World Wildlife Fund are, what happens if we go and ban ivory and the elephants continue to be slaughtered? I fear that if Americans do ban the trade in ivory that 1) the slaughter won’t stop and that Americans will throw up their hands feeling they have done all that they could do, 2) an illegal trade will develop and 3) the current owners of valuable, formerly legitimate ivories, will form black markets and that our legal system will be burdened with yet another law that is hard to enforce.
As an owner of antique ivory, I see the legislation as a shotgun approach to a problem that could use a scalpel. The shotgun is an effective killing weapon, but it doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe. I know that antique organizations would agree and cooperate in creating a data base of antique ivory. I also know that a modest tax from the owners, sellers and buyers of ivory would be willing to pay a fee to be part of this data base. There are, according to Lark Mason who culled information and extrapolated from sales of ivory in Cincinnati over a 6 month period, 300-600 million pieces with ivory in America.
Even if Lark’s figures are three times too great, the taxing of the movement of 100 million ivories could go a long way to both setting up a data base, learning about the illegal trade and eventually in helping the elephant population. The World Wildlife Fund is a worthy organization and they need to get this issue right. They also need to get the right people on the right side of the issue. Currently, a lot of law abiding citizens who disagree with this approach will flout what they consider to be a bad law. Americans have done that before and will do it again. The WWF should work to get this right.
This is an art and antiques fair that should change the way that all art fairs look. It is absolutely sensational. Rafael Vinoly’s design not only works, it hums with energy as art and antiques pull you left and right around the Armory. I have never seen the likes before and I am certain that all future fairs that are in the Armory will have to reckon with how spectacular this design is for a fair. If you haven’t seen it yet, there is today and tomorrow. Hours are 11-7:30 today, May 3, and 11-6 tomorrow. The Armory is located between 66th and 67th on Park Ave. More on the fair next week.
There are a number of false claims about ivory that are currently circulating in the news. The biggest false claim is that New York is the second largest ivory market in the world. I don’t know where or how this fact was established, but anyone reading the CITES report from 2013 will quickly see that America, as a whole, is insignificant as a market for illegal ivory. It is a talking point for those people that want to see a ban on all ivory sales and it clearly isn’t true.
The second shibboleth is that by banning all ivory in the United States, we will save the elephant. This is a leap of faith, not a fact. People who would like to save the elephant and who claim that this bold moral stance will set an example for the world are being, I feel, naïve. America’s moral standing in the world has suffered since we went into Viet Nam in the 1960’s and was severely damaged by the Iraq War, the lack of WMDs, Abu Ghraib and, well the list is a long one.
There is something to be said for moral stances. However, if they aren’t going to be effective, and it hasn’t been as far as antiquities are concerned as the smuggling goes on and the problem of illegal excavations continues. Furthermore, it is clear that the Chinese, in particular, don’t have any compulsion to listen to the West for any reason as they continue to build coal fed power plants despite the obvious pollutants and their deleterious effect on climate.
The most difficult thing to clarify, which is less of a fact than a supposition, is that the endangered elephants will be saved by the action of banning ivory in America. I know that if all of us who deal antique ivory believed this to be the case, we would endorse the ban wholeheartedly. Working to save the elephant should be a goal, but economics notwithstanding, the argument is susceptibly weak for a host of reasons, the most obvious being that the vast majority of poached ivory goes to Asia.
Facts and emotion bang heads all the time. There are inconvenient truths everywhere regarding the demise of the elephant. Zimbabwe’s need for capital, for example, is leading to Mugabe opening up game preserves to mining which will reduce the elephant’s territory in Zimbabwe which will impact the herd. Mugabe is going to allow elephants slaughtered to get cash every day of the week. How many other situations like this are brewing? I would venture that our State Department knows and so should the people who wish to save the elephant.
My walk down Madison Avenue every morning allows me to enjoy window shopping. I see some of my competitors’ windows which is always fun. Gerry Bland, between 90th and 91st, has such a terrific eye, and it is always interesting to see if he has something new in his shop, particularly if it is by Eve Kaplan, a ceramicist whose work is astounding. Gerry can really surprise me with the furniture he buys. It is always stylish whether it is 18th, 19th 20th or 21st century.
Florian Papp is the next shop I pass between 75th and 76th and is the reason that I am writing this blog. Their windows are always good, but their Easter window is superb. Little chicks (edible?) in a row lie on three benches backed by a Chinese screen. It sets a really lovely tone compared to all the supra-stylish clothes shops that surround it. Not that the other shops are bad looking, but in way they all look the same. Papp’s window provokes an emotion and, if you have a sense of humor, a laugh.
The last window I pass is Mallet between 73 and 74. Their windows don’t vary greatly. Their trademark is a pair of curved windows that draw you in to look down the alley of the shop. There is often some magnificent piece that is well lit at the back of the shop which is well worth stopping for, but if you are looking for humor, you tend not to find it. Their Christmas window is just great, however. It is an Advent calendar in boxes with each numbered box getting opened every day before Christmas.
I don’t know how long these windows will remain as New York landlords are really going for very big rents these days. A friend of mine that owns some shops on Lexington Avenue told me that he had two people fighting over 1200 square feet, meaning that the price per month just went up and up. I might add that he thinks it is ridiculous, but that he is hardly going to say no to a larger rent. I think he is more than ready to drop it, however, should the market ever start to plunge.
I attended a conference yesterday hosted by the Committee for Cultural Policy, a “non-profit organization that informs the public on policies and laws that affect the international movement of cultural property.” Basically, the discussion was about the White Paper published by the Committee in 2013 titled, “A Proposal to Reform Law and Policy Relating to the International Exchange of Cultural Policy”. It is, essentially, “a review of policy from a museum and collector perspective”.
I expected to be somewhat bored as their focus was largely on antiquities, a forum that has garnered more than its fair share of bad publicity with tomb robbers, illegal purchases and foreign government intrusions into museums demanding the return of stolen goods. It was, in fact, intriguing and informative on the way in which governments make and enforce rules. Of course, this applies to the current debate about ivory which, at the moment seems like a foregone conclusion that it will be banned.
In essence, it is clear that government bodies inform themselves about issues by consulting certain groups. The primary source as regards antiquities has been, apparently, archaeologists. Archaeologists have a point of view that pieces should remain in the ground and be excavated by archaeologists in order to learn the most from a particular object or group of objects. This has validity, but not always, since pieces were transported everywhere—a known fact—and that their sites often have little or nothing to do with an object.
The issues were not just how the government has informed themselves to create law, but also how it has been carried out. This is, of course, the most dangerous gray area of all since foreign governments will try very hard to shame countries into returning items they feel are theirs. The Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles both come to mind, but there are a host of other things, some of which have been returned because the political cast on returning an item is better than standing firm and resisting.
Furthermore, there is a double indemnity to the law in that there are overlapping statutes which, by design, create ambiguity and give prosecutors and judges greater latitude of interpretation. Wrapped up altogether, it appears that museums, collectors and dealers are under siege from not only foreign governments, but also from our own government and that the rationale guiding this policy is either one sided and/or entirely political. Furthermore, it is not even party related, it is bureaucracy driven. Is this any way to run a government?
The television show “Vice” airs on HBO on Friday nights and offers in-depth coverage of news, or perhaps I should say, a more visceral reality based coverage of the news. I watched because one of the segments was on the vanishing rhino population which is being decimated by poachers who can make as much as $5,000 for a rhino horn. One clip showed a rhino mutilated by poachers and yet still alive—it was both appalling and depressing to see such wanton cruelty.
I have talked about the cultural imperative that certain items have in particular cultures and “Vice” made it very clear that this is an absolute truth. One young entrepreneur in Hanoi had some rhino horn that was his father’s and which he inherited. He quite obviously believed that rhino horn had certain qualities that would keep his body healthy that no diet or medicine could. Another man, a cancer patient, had given up on chemotherapy, but not on rhino horn.
Rhino horns, which are not dissimilar from either hair or finger nails as it is made of keratin, will grow back if they are cut which has prompted one African entrepreneur to breed rhinos and cut their horns. Quite naturally, he wishes to see the trade in horn legalized. In a way, it makes sense since the cultural imperative seems impossible to reverse. If I were to look for the root of the problem, I would say that the cultural imperative is at the core of it. The poachers recognize and exploit it.
The cultural imperative is also what drives the trade in ivory. Owning carved ivory in China, I am told, is not unlike how Americans felt in the 1950’s about modern conveniences and one’s status for having the latest labor saving machine. In China and many other parts of Southeast Asia and Japan, carved ivory offers an elevated status to the owner of such objects. This is not true anywhere else. Americans who buy ivory carvings are buying the decoration, not the status.
I was asked by a friend to see if I could put myself into the position of the US government and try to figure out how I would try to stop the slaughter of endangered animals. I honestly don’t know just how I would. The cultural divide that separates the US from both Africa and Asia, is significant. One thing I would not do, however, is pretend that they do not exist. This is where I would look for solutions, not in the hope that a law designed to affect the American public would have any consequence.
The French grape vine was under siege in the 19th century by an aphid commonly known as the 'grape phylloxera' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_French_Wine_Blight). There could have been a host of responses to the threat including an embargo on American vines which caused the problem in the first place which would have been too late, or perhaps toxic chemicals that would kill the bug. On the other end, French wine producers might just have tried to pick off the aphids (as they did with the aid of chickens and toads) and kept their wine within France (which they did not do), certainly limiting solutions given what French wine has been to the French economy. In the end, American vine roots were grafted to French vines since American vines could resist the predation of the aphid.
I am reminded of this chapter in history because of the current plight of the African elephant. The elephant is under siege because of poachers who are responding to the market value of ivory. Raw tusks are worth a great deal these days. But that worth is almost entirely in Asia where there is both a tradition of ivory carving that has never lapsed, unlike that of Europe where ivory carving is largely a thing of the past, and where the majority of Asians do not understand that to harvest a husk you must kill an elephant. America’s response to the elephant’s plight is to attempt to render ivory valueless by banning the sale of all ivory. Please sirs, the problem and criminality of illegal ivory poaching is not in this country as the CITES conference report of 2013 makes quite clear.
America loves the silver bullet solution. If we pass a law, then we, as American citizens, will obey it and all will be right with the world. That really worked well with Prohibition. Similarly, the marijuana laws that once caused the incarceration of thousands of young men, mostly black, are finally being recognized as unsuccessful. We learn, but it takes time and in that time we turn law abiding citizens into criminals or skeptics of the American system, neither of which is healthy for our society. The law to ban the trading of all ivory is a false premise. If we really want to help the elephants, it will require multiple armed forces ready to go after sophisticated poachers. Asian buyers will also need educating about the havoc their cultural imperative is causing. The solution is, as it always has been, at the root of the problem.
In trying to parse all the details that go into the ban of all ivory products into the US and the banning of those products for sale across state lines by the Fish and Wildlife Service, it is clear that a public relations effort is being launched to demonize all ivory. For example, the banning has been conflated with the trafficking of all animals on the ESA (Endangered Species Act) list. Yes, elephant’s are being slaughtered for their ivory and this needs stopping, but no one is smuggling already existing ivory and it is not related to the current slaughter of elephants. The Advisory Panel that met on Thursday, March 20 in Arlington, VA ignored this fact, preferring to note how criminal organizations that orchestrated such trafficking were involved in drug smuggling, people trafficking, money laundering and terrorism.
Interestingly, CITES (Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), in a report from March 2013 and which, since 1982 has required permits for the movement of all items shipped internationally that contain such materials, finds that there is no criminal activity associated with ivory smuggling within the United States. For the Advisory Panel to cite criminal activity with ivory smuggling must, therefore mean, that such activity is taking place outside the borders of the US. Hence, the ban on ivory sales within the US, at the very least, is a red herring. But this is only one aspect of a larger problem with the thought process of the Fish and Wildlife’s ban.
One of the immediate weaknesses facing Fish and Wildlife’s thought process is how ivory is perceived in Asian countries. The Chinese word for ivory, for example, relates to the word tooth. Many Chinese do not realize that the elephant has to be killed to harvest its ivory. They believe that the tooth can be removed without destroying the elephant and that ivory products bear no relationship to declining elephant populations. This misunderstanding has helped to sustain the illegal trade of ivory to Asian countries whose relative insouciance to the declining elephant population is entirely logical.
Another aspect of the ban that Fish and Wildlife seems unawares of is the nature of African governance. One panel member, John Webb, suggested that army surplus be allocated to countries to help them deal with the sophisticated poachers who are using helicopters and machine guns to mow down herds of elephants. If this is true, and there is no reason to doubt this, then the smuggling operation is far more sophisticated and deadly and would require actual intervention on behalf of some body—NATO or some militarized force—to actually counter such wanton butchery. A ban on ivory products, already largely regulated by CITES, is not focusing on the problem. African governments also need to ask for help and they haven’t and probably will not.
Perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of this new law, and the US is very good at passing what I would call “silver bullet” legislation (think Prohibition or the Rockefeller law) that will solve myriad problems with one sweeping law, is that it will encourage a black market in ivory products that are old and have nothing whatsoever to do with the slaughter of elephants. Our cultural history, whether we like it or not, is intertwined with ivory, tortoise shell, horn, whale products—a whole host of animal related items that are now included in wildlife trafficking. It is a thorny problem that has not simple solution as the emotional argument—to save these animals—is compelling. No one in their right mind wishes to see the extinction of any species.
The answer requires hard work and a reliance on the honesty of those people who trade and collect antique objects. I don’t find this a hard thing to conceptualize. Americans are, for the most part, law abiding and willing to accept reasonable restrictions. A data base could be established to register antique ivory products so as to allow their sale and transfer and not disenfranchise those people who have collected rare art objects that include endangered species materials. That data base would be international and would quickly establish those persons wishing to abide by the law.