Ivory Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:55 pm on 17th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Carrington of Fulham Lord Carrington of Fulham Conservative 4:55 pm, 17th July 2018

My Lords, strangely, I want to start by making a declaration of non-interest. Because of the sometimes emotional nature of this debate on the Bill, I think it is important to make clear that I have no interest to declare: I am not connected to the antiques trade; nor do I have a collection of ivory items, although inevitably, in common with many people, including perhaps some of your Lordships, I own some objects that contain ivory. Most were inherited from long-dead relatives, such as a Victorian coffee-pot and some early 20th-century fish knives and forks, or are decorative items which contain a small piece of ivory inlay, such as an escutcheon around the keyhole of a wooden box.

Let me add that I strongly support the intention of the Bill, as I suspect do the overwhelming majority of your Lordships and people outside this House. We all want to protect elephants and other animals hunted and slaughtered to feed the trade in modern ivory, and I have no doubt that the intention of the Bill is to do just that. However, I have very real concerns that the Bill will fail to achieve these objectives. Indeed, I fear that, paradoxically, the Bill as drafted may well increase the likelihood of poaching of elephants for their ivory.

The logical basis of the Bill is that modern ivory items are indistinguishable from items made from ivory long ago. Many people familiar with antique ivory dispute this assumption by Defra. I will return to this in detail but, broadly speaking, there are many ways to distinguish old from new ivory. At one extreme is radio carbon dating and at the other is the expertise of museum curators and ivory specialists in the antiques trade. As the Bill assumes that it is not possible to distinguish old from new, it bans all trade in ivory—except that it does not, as it creates three groups of exemptions from the ban. First, it creates an elaborate system for identifying museum-quality items of exceptional importance, which museums can then buy and sell. This accepts that museum curators can distinguish old ivory from new, since these items will be vetted by experts before they can be considered to have met the museum-quality criteria. Just how this fits with the belief that it is not possible to date antique ivory with an acceptable degree of certainty for lower-quality items is unclear.

If it is possible to tell that an item of museum quality is made of old ivory and not faked in some Vietnamese workshop, then it is possible to tell that a less remarkable item is also old. After all, the ivory is the same; it is just the ageing effects on the ivory, and often the quality of the workmanship, that are different. The Bill ignores the scale of the problem which any panel of curators will face: the number and range of items will be very large. We have many museums in this country and, of course, museums able to buy and sell will not be confined to the UK: American and EU museums regularly buy and sell in the UK’s thriving art market, and the Bill seems to allow for that.

What is museum quality for the British Museum, which has just accepted the Sassoon collection of ivories, will be different for another museum, equally respectable and academically rigorous and duly registered by the Arts Council. There are 1,576 Arts Council-registered museums in the UK. A museum such as the Geffrye Museum near Bishopsgate in London, specialising in middle-class and working-class life in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, would probably not be interested in the Sassoon collection, but might well be interested in an ivory-handled table knife of no great artistic value from the 18th century as illustrating the lifestyle of ordinary people 300 years ago. It might be the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, which has an outstanding collection of cutlery through the ages, many pieces of which will have ivory handles.

The second and third categories of exemption are pre-1918 portrait miniatures and pre-1975 musical instruments. I warmly welcome these exemptions, although I suspect that they were granted not because of any logic about the amount of ivory as compared with other similar items, but rather to avoid vocal opposition from well-organised lobby groups and media stars in the music industry and on “Antiques Roadshow”. It is important to point out that the amount of ivory in a portrait miniature can be greater than that in an 18-century theatre ticket disc, yet the miniature is exempt and the theatre ticket is banned. The value of both, by the way, has nothing to do with the small amount of ivory they contain.

For musical instruments, the curious exemptions are the cut-off date of 1975 and the 20% by volume of ivory that the instrument is allowed to contain, as opposed to a limit of 10% for all other items containing ivory. If you have an upright piano with ivory keys dated before 1975, you are exempt and able to sell it. If you have a 1920s art deco sculpture, by a world-famous artist, of a dancer with a metal body but ivory head and arms, above or below 10% by volume makes no difference: you are banned from selling it as the cut-off date is 1918. Any exemption is welcome. All I ask for is some consistency and perhaps some clear and transparent logical justification.

This illustrates another problem with this Bill: the sheer volume of ivory items created over the centuries before plastics became available. I have seen estimates of 2 million to 3 million objects incorporating ivory, and I suspect that this will turn out to be a gross underestimate. Most table cutlery, to take but one example, had ivory handles prior to World War 2. There are probably several million knives and forks of all types incorporating some ivory still in existence. Before the advent of plastics, ivory was used as an insulator for a wide variety of items, such as coffee-pot and tea-pot handles. Many chests of drawers, tea caddies and writing boxes had small ivory inlay, and so it goes on. The number of items containing ivory made before 1918 will run into many millions.

The Bill recognises this problem by allowing a so-called de minimis rule of 10% by volume, although it is unclear what is meant by volume. Is it the volume of the item, including the volume in the inaccessible interior of, say, a hollow statuette or is it the volume of the silver and ivory that the outer casing of the object is made from? Who is to judge—and indeed how—whether the ivory is 10% or above or below without removing the ivory and measuring its height, width and depth? Measuring the amount of wood, let alone the amount of ivory inlay in, say, a chest of drawers is not easy because of the construction. Even with a humble fish knife and fork set, the handle may be ivory, but it is likely to be a thin tube of ivory slid over a metal shank, so the ivory content may appear to be above 10% but in reality may be well below and so qualify for the de minimis exemption.

Indeed, is the supposed ivory ivory at all? Ivory was always an expensive material, so for cheaper items, particular for household use, bone from domestic animals was substituted for ivory. Particularly with small items, it is very hard to tell the difference because the bone was chosen deliberately and with great care to look like ivory. Is my granny’s set of silver-plated fish knives, probably given to her on her wedding in 1911, ivory-handled, or are the handles made of bone chosen to look like ivory? It would take an expert in ivory to tell, and that expertise is not likely to be available to the police, the enforcement officers charged with raiding, auctioneers or antique dealers.

The Bill says that items with less than 10% ivory by volume can be sold, but to be sold they have to be registered. We will need to explore in Committee how the registration will work. Whoever is charged with keeping the registry will have a major database problem, given the high number of items that potentially will need to be registered. To work, it will also have to be a low-cost registration process. I have a silver-plated coffee pot with ivory heat insulators in the handle, so that is well below 10% by volume. It is of little monetary value but considerable sentimental value because it was my great-grandfather’s, probably a wedding present from around 1880. Its value on the market would be £50 to £100 if I was lucky. So if the registration cost is £5, say, that might allow it to be sold, but if the cost is £25 then the coffee pot would end up in landfill, which would be a shame because it is quite attractive and someone might love to use it in years to come. More seriously, there are also implications for inheritance tax. If someone more fortunate than me has a valuable item that is more than 10% ivory, and assuming that it forms part of an estate that includes a house, taking the total over the inheritance tax threshold, the item containing ivory would have to be valued for probate. Since it could not be sold, I assume that HMRC would be happy to assign it a nil value—unless HMRC’s intention is that items containing ivory will be exempt from inheritance tax.

There is another problem with the register. As I understand it, the intention is that each item of less than 10% ivory will be given a certificate saying that it is registered and can be sold. So my granny’s fish knives wedding present and my great-grandfather’s coffee pot will have just such a certificate, assuming that the ivory content is less than 10%, as will many thousands of other similar items. These items were mass produced. There are many identical coffee pots, fish knives and forks around. If they were silver, they would have a hallmark that would allow them to be uniquely identified, but they are not; they are silver-plated and so have no distinguishing features from the same anonymous manufacturer’s mass-produced similar items. So the certificate of registration will inevitably find it hard to uniquely identify my granny’s wedding present. In unscrupulous hands, this means that it would be possible to forge certificates or to duplicate them electronically, so making enforcement of the ban by the police impossible. I am sure that we will explore these issues in considerable detail in Committee and on Report.

Coming back to whether the Bill will achieve its objective, which is to stop the slaughter of elephants and the carving of new ivory for sale, my right honourable friend Mr Gove believes that the UK will set an example that the rest of the world will follow and that those countries that currently fuel the demand for new ivory carvings will clamp down on their domestic trade in ivory. I hope they do, although the evidence is that the partial ban in China has only moved the carving of ivory into neighbouring countries and the sale of new ivory has continued, although more discreetly.

However, what effect will the ban have in the UK on the sale of antique ivory, and on having new ivory and passing it off as old? It is unlikely that anyone will try to carve new ivory to look like my granny’s fish knives, but then, they never would have done, as there is no value in doing so. The only value will be in forging new ivory carvings that look like antique museum-quality ivory carvings, which can then be sold. If a faked modern carving passes the vetting, its value will become very large outside the UK—an attractive proposition to criminals.

On the plus side, the Bill will stop the sale of ivory in the UK on eBay, particularly modern ivory trinkets, where perhaps the real problem of new ivory carving lies. But that trade could easily be stopped by much simpler legislation, even if it is not already illegal under existing laws, which it almost certainly is.

Since the Bill already accepts that a vetting panel can identify old ivory from new for the museum exemption and, indeed, would have to for registration purposes, I suggest it would be simpler to extend that to a general licensing system, so that antique ivory can be sold only through authorised dealers and auction houses which can demonstrate to a panel of experts their competence in identifying old from new ivory. Again, we may want to explore this in Committee.

In summary, this is a very worthy but complex Bill which will be hard to enforce and which the police will be unlikely to have the resources to enforce. It will lead to the destruction of many historic antiques, arbitrarily stripping the value from items currently legally owned by voters, and encourage the faking of high-value, museum-quality ivory carvings. All this when there are simpler and more effective ways of achieving the laudable aims of the Bill. In other words, this Bill has all the potential for being another Dangerous Dogs Act. For all its virtue signalling and gesture politics, it will fail to save the life of one single elephant currently roaming the African veldt.