Ivory Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 17th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Non-affiliated 5:45 pm, 17th July 2018

My Lords, in my contribution to this Second Reading debate I will concentrate on the relationship between ivory, works of art, conservation and the international art market. I declare my interests: I am president of the British Art Market Federation, which is a national umbrella body for the art trade in this country, and I was chairman of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest for 10 years. I am also the owner of a few ivory objects, of which only two—an early 19th-century ebony table, which is inlaid, and a Broadwood piano almost identical to the one owned by Beethoven—have any significant value as far as I know. I also have an interest in conservation generally, being president of the Cumbria Wildlife Trust.

Ivory is an extraordinary and romantic substance, which in days gone by was believed to have almost magical properties often associated with royalty. After all, the description of King Solomon’s throne in the books of Kings and Chronicles is witness to that, while for example, the throne of Maximianus in Ravenna, which dates from about 550, is, as anyone who has ever seen it knows, a significant and supremely moving historic and artistic object. Indeed, more recently, the ivory throne of Travancore in the Royal Collection was one of the stars of the Great Exhibition of 1851. As we all know, ivory has over the years been used for works of art of very real significance. However, what is interesting to me is that this manifests itself in two rather different ways: the object might be made of ivory, or it may be ornamented and/or embellished with ivory. The two are rather different.

As everyone speaking in this debate knows, there is a very real danger that elephants might become extinct because of the illegal activities of poachers feeding the eastern Asian market, where intricate ivory carvings are much esteemed and valued. Let us be clear: there are a certain number of these still in the United Kingdom because of our imperial past, which I understand are being exported quickly now in anticipation of the imminent ban. But we should be countering the demand of the Asian market, which is fuelled by a taste that to us seems somewhat alien and is reinforced by money—sometimes very large amounts of money.

While it could be argued that a universal ban on the trade in worked and raw ivory may not necessarily be the optimum way of dealing with this problem, it is no part of my case to argue that now. Rather, in the context of the Bill, I endorse the proposition that a ban with certain exemptions is the right way forward, since a universal ban would put us on a par with the iconoclasts of Byzantium, the extreme 17th-century Protestant reformers and today’s fundamental iconoclastic Islam. For that reason, I endorse the principles contained in Clauses 2, 6 and 9 of the Bill so long as they are actually implemented in accord with common sense and logic. I have certain quibbles about the details in respect of that.

I return to the issue of east Asian taste, which, as I have already commented, is for carved ivory which comes from chunks of ivory. As I said, much ivory here in the United Kingdom is essentially decorative and comprises inlay, marquetry and such things, which is generally but not absolutely invariably western taste. This is a form of ivory for which demand from east Asia is more or less non-existent because it is used in thin, shard-like fragments and tiny knobs for drawer handles and so on. Indeed, were this not so, so-called “brown furniture”—the market for which is currently depreciated—would be being acquired by dealers at rock-bottom prices, the ivory removed for onward sale, and the tropical hardwoods from which the furniture was made cast aside.

But this does not appear to be happening and suggests—as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said in respect of musical instruments—that this material is not part of the international trade in ivory which we all want to stifle. As a generalisation, exemptions relating to Clause 8 —musical instruments—and Clause 7—pre-1975 items containing minimal quantities of ivory—concern items that are not in general desirable to the Asiatic market. Having said that, I am pleased because it is right that we have these exemptions, although there is a case for saying that the de minimis threshold is somewhat niggardly and outside international norms.

What to me is perverse in all these circumstances is the almost Kafkaesque process of registration outlined in Clause 10. It is particularly so in the case of Clause 7 items, where the cost of registration may well exceed the value of the item in question and the ivory elements of which are of little or no interest to the Asian market—which is, after all, the root cause of the elephant’s plight.

In the light of the consultation undertaken by the British Art Market Federation, and of the private researches I have carried out with local auctioneers I know in the north of England, it is well nigh certain that substantial quantities of antique items of considerable quality and age will end up at the tip because of a combination of the cost and trouble of registration. These items are not doing harm to anyone or anything, and simply do not merit such bureaucracy or treatment. The reality is that much or probably most of what comes on to the market of this kind now is the result of deceased estates and downsizing. The bureaucracy involved in registration is so onerous in one way or another that a fair amount of ivory and tropical hardwood is going to end up at the tip. Gestures of this kind, it seems to me, are not going to save a single elephant or preserve a single tree in the rainforest. As drafted, this measure looks simply silly, philistine and not properly thought through.

I turn finally to what has been touched on by a number of other speakers: what I might call the enforcement provisions, which I have discussed with my noble friend Lady Vere and her officials together with representatives of the British Art Market Federation and lawyers. As drafted, they appear to single out this sector for especially oppressive treatment, a view shared by a number of eminent lawyers. However, when we met she kindly agreed to review this point and engage further with it at a later stage of the Bill—something that I trust my noble friend can confirm later from the Dispatch Box.

This Bill merits general support but with a little tweaking, it could become excellent legislation which I could wholeheartedly endorse.