Ivory – Types & Legalities

Japanese Meiji period carved ivory erotic netsuke

p4A ItemID F7969396
European carved ivory figure, 18th/19th c.

p4A ItemID F7962387
Georgian carved ivory picture in a carved wood and gilded oval frame, from British East India

p4A ItemID F7960926
A French School framed Crucifix with carved ivory Christ figure and mirror inset

p4A ItemID F7959287

Types of Ivory and the Legalities of the Ivory Trade

What is Ivory?

Strictly speaking, the term “ivory” refers only to the whitish-yellow material that makes up the tusks of mammals, such as elephants and walruses. Other related materials, such as that which comprises the teeth of sperm whales and, upon occasion, hippopotamuses, is often called ivory, but technically, is not. Two other related types of material are the ivory from the East Indian hornbill, as well as the hardened cellulose that makes up the inner seed of the South American ivory palm tree, often called “vegetable ivory.”

Synthetic ivory has been around since the middle of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, plastics, from early celluloid to modern resin, have also been used as ivory substitutes.

In the antiques marketplace, one typically sees ivory (hereafter referring to ivory in the most general sense) in one of several major areas:

Fine carvings and objects of vertu originating in Asia and sometimes Europe. These are most often made of elephant ivory. Probably the commonest type of ivory objects in the marketplace, this group includes Chinese ivory carvings (such as Buddhas and puzzle balls), Japanese netsukes, as well as European figures (often religious in nature) and calling card cases.

Folk art items carved by sailors, called scrimshaw. The heyday of the scrimshander was the nineteenth century. Sailors passed the time on the long whaling voyages carving images on the teeth of the sperm whales they hunted, and often created household objects, such as swifts and pie crimpers (jagging wheels), and keepsakes, such as boxes and whimsies, for loved ones at home out of whale bone.

Tribal objects from cultures around the world. From the African bush to the Aleutian Islands, tribal cultures that, historically, have had access to ivory have created all manner of utilitarian, decorative, and ceremonial objects from it. As one might expect, cultures in Asia and Africa have traditionally used elephant ivory, while coastal cultures, particularly those in the far northern hemisphere, have used the tusks and teeth of marine mammals.

Decorative material. The use of ivory for buttons, inlay on furniture, finials on baskets, feet on boxes, and countless other ways, has been practiced on nearly every continent and for hundreds of years.

Because of conservation efforts, there are federal laws that limit the buying and selling of ivory objects. These laws can be rather complex, but here are a couple of the important points:

1. The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, enacted in 1973 and 1972 respectively, forbid the importation or exportation of ivory that was not one hundred years old when the acts took effect.

2. The buying and selling of non-antique ivory (ivory that post-dates 1872/3) is legal provided that the animal was removed from the wild before it was placed on the Endangered Species List or otherwise protected. For example, ivory from an Asian elephant that was taken prior to 1976, when the Asian Elephant was placed on the ESL, is legal to own, buy and sell. Any ivory taken after the species gained protected status is illegal.

Please note, there may be restrictions on the sale or transport of pre-Act ivory across state lines. For more information, visit the United States Fish and Wildlife Service website: www.fws.gov.

Disclaimer: This information was not prepared by an attorney and is for informational purposes only. p4A does not guarantee the accuracy, reliability, or usefulness of the information regarding the legality of owning, buying, and selling ivory. If you have questions about ivory-related laws, please contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or an attorney. If you are unsure if an object you own is ivory and if it is “antique”, you should consult an expert (such as an appraiser, auctioneer, dealer, or museum curator) who has experience handling ivory.


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