C.H. inherited from her great uncle some rare Japanese ivory netsuke figures. These are delightful, whimsical small carved figures, worn for centuries by the gentleman of Japan, suspended on cords hanging from the obi sash. Essentially toggles that gather two cords of a belt together, these were worn as a decorative element to “hold” other hanging objects together, such as sagemono, which were little tools including miniature ink cases and small lighters. C.H. wants to know if she can sell these. The problem is that they are, indeed, ivory and cannot be sold.
It is a federal offense to sell ivory in the U.S., and has been since 2016. Some clients say that their ivory is more than 100 years old and is therefore antique. Just because you may “know” it is antique doesn’t mean you can prove it is antique. The proper verification is the CITES documentation, and to obtain this, you’ll need the original bill of sale and the clearance of the object at the port of entry. That is most difficult to obtain 100 years later.
C.H. wonders if I can put a value on the netsukes in her collection; the answer again is NO. If there is no present marketplace, there are no possible comparable sales with which to establish a value. C.H., it is not an offense to keep your great uncle’s ivory, and you can pass it to your heirs, and, in some cases, gift it to a museum. Even then, that gift is tricky, because museums have, since 2016, in some cases, established their own policies about this kind of donation. Although the ban prohibits African elephant ivory, it takes a trained laboratory tech to tell the difference between Asian and African.
Sotheby’s New York has long discontinued selling and eBay does not allow listing of any type of ivory. Craigslist postings are policed, and flea market and estate sales are diligently watched as well. Just don’t think of doing anything with anything that looks like ivory, except to admire it in your own collection, C.H.
And what are the types of ivory? Ivory is a generic term for such objects as those created from, essentially, teeth: tusks, such as those from whales and seals, used for objects called scrimshaw, and objects made from prehistoric mammal tusks, even for bone that appears to be ivory. I myself counsel against dealing in anything that vaguely could be mistaken for ivory, such as bone or celluloid, which is often used in inlay in fine furniture as well as in those Mahjong and chess sets.
Be careful of jewelry with any addition of ivory, furniture and musical instruments with the embellishment of ivory, of clocks with ivory marquetry, and antique firearms, of anything that has more than 200 grams of ivory embellishment. Who can acutely determine that weight for sure? So don’t sell. This warning applies to estate sale operators and dealers as well, because ivory-appearing objects can be confiscated and you can be severely prosecuted. It doesn’t make any difference who is selling – as a business, as an individual or as someone liquidating an estate of any kind, even in a garage sale, do NOT sell anything resembling ivory, or anything that seems to have ivory-looking elements in the design. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is particularly vigilant, by the way.
And there’s good reason for this ban: Elephant poaching in Africa had reached a critical crisis. New goods were being imported and sold. By 2013, California Fish and Wildlife led the charge and cracked down on sales; by 2014, President Obama expanded this action to the federal level – in 2016, the sale was banned by the U.S. government.
Clients ask me about the sale of pianos, which may or may not have ivory keys, depending on the age. This is also tricky. Most musical instruments called “pre-existing” (not made recently) contain fewer than 200 grams. But not all. I suggest contacting a professional piano technician if you are in doubt.
Regarding the fabulous artistry of C.H.’s inherited netsukes: These are rare, delightful piece of Japanese history. Enjoy, but do not think of selling.