Gregor Kleinknecht discusses British law on ivory in Discover Germany

  • May 08, 2018
  • By Gregor Kleinknecht, Partner

Saving Babar, Lumpy and Friends

I think it is safe to say that we all agree on the principle that saving the elephant is a worthwhile objective and cannot happen a day too soon if the animal isn’t to become as fictional as a heffalump. In reality, the UK has always been, and still remains today, one of the world’s centres of the legal ivory trade. In order to hopefully bring about real and effective change, the Government has been pushing to implement one of the Conservatives’ manifesto pledges to bring forward more robust protection measures. In a recently closed Government consultation on the proposed UK ivory sales ban, 88 per cent of respondents supported the proposed ban. The Government’s response to the consultation suggests that these measures are now a step closer, and that they will amount to one of the world’s toughest bans (at least on paper).

The proposal is to extend the already existing ban to cover ivory items of all ages, not only those produced after 1947, which is the position under current law. The maximum penalty for breaching the ban will be an unlimited fine or up to five years in jail. However, there will still be some exemptions:

  • items comprised of less than 10 per cent ivory by volume and made prior to 1947 (thi5 is also known as the ‘de minimis’ ex- caption)
  • musical instruments Cth an ivory content of less than 20 per cent and made prior to 1975
  • the barest and most important items of their type; they will be assessed by specialist institutions, such as museums, before exemption permits are issued, and must be at least 100 years old
  • portrait miniatures at least 100 years old (they are often painted on thin bases of ivory)
  • commercial activities between accredited museums

Even though some antiques containing ivory will no longer be allowed to be traded, these exemptions are intended to safeguard and balance the legitimate interests of the art and antiquities trade and of collectors, who have been lobbying strongly throughout the consultation process. How much of an effect the ban will have on poaching and the illicit ivory trade, and how many elephants the ban will actually save, remains to be seen. There is a risk that it will only increase the value of legally traded ivory whereas experience would unfortunately appear to suggest that the illicit trade will  simply  find  other routes and outlets; the trade in illegally excavated and trafficked antiquities serves as an example of how  this  happens.  All too often, it will catch the wrong people, such as a house-moving client who recently asked us for help when the container containing her household goods was searched by HMRC on transshipment from New Zealand to the Netherlands and her grandparents’ 19th century piano was seized because it had ivory keys and was not accompanied by the correct CITES paperwork. Law abiding as she may have wanted to be, it simply did not occur to the client that the instrument required export paperwork.

However, leading (at long last) by example is the right approach and on a global scale this may be a case of ‘every little helps’. Hopefully, the introduction of a ban with some limited and pragmatic exemptions for items of low ivory content or legitimate museum trading, will draw a close to what has often been an emotionally charged debate. Much will depend on how effective enforcement of the ban is, and how successful prosecutions will be in practice. Heffa nice day and fingers crossed that it will make a difference.

This article appeared in Discover Germany in May 2018 and can be read on page 62 here.

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