A Landmark Ban on Ivory in the U.K. Went Into Effect Today. Many Owners Raced to Cash in at the 11th Hour

Over the last month, 165 U.K. auction houses sold more than 2,700 ivory objects for a combined $1 million.

Elephants carved from illegal Ivory are displayed at an "Endangered Species" exhibition at London Zoo on September 12, 2011 in London, England. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

A years-in-the-making ivory ban went into effect in the U.K. today, making the selling of items carved from elephant tusks punishable by hefty fines and jail sentences. But that didn’t stop dealers and collectors from hawking their own ivory wares in the days leading up to the deadline. 

An estimated 165 U.K. auction houses sold more than 2,700 ivory objects in the past month, netting a combined £842,000 ($1 million) in the process. 

The Ivory Act was passed by Parliament in 2018 and enforced as of today. The ban is among the strictest in Europe, barring items containing ivory from being bought, sold, imported, or exported. (Exceptions will be granted for a few select items, such as pieces of “outstandingly high artistic, cultural, or historical value” that were made before 1918, or antique objects made prior to 1947 that comprise less than 10 percent ivory.)

Violators of the act face up to five years in prison or fines of as much as £250,000 ($313,000).

In a statement, Zac Goldsmith, the U.K. minster of animal welfare, called the act “a ​​landmark moment.”  

“Thousands of elephants are unnecessarily and cruelly targeted for their ivory every year for financial gain,” Goldsmith said. “As one of the toughest bans of its kind, we are sending a clear message the commercial trade of elephant ivory is totally unacceptable.”

Leading up to the act’s official enforcement, owners of ivory objects were encouraged to turn them in to the U.K. government. Many did so, reportedly surrendering thousands of carvings, figurines, and other items.

However, others took the opportunity to cash in at the 11th hour. 

According to data compiled by Two Million Tusks, a non-profit dedicated to the protection of elephants, roughly 790 pieces of ivory were offered by U.K. auction houses in the last week of May alone. At least 143 items sold, bringing in £64,000 ($84,000). In the two weeks before that, ivory sales scored auction houses £61,306 and £30,492, respectively.

“Despite the ban, there has remained a strong appetite within British auction houses for ivory,” Louise Ravula, a co-founder of Two Million Tusks, told the Independent. The pieces are obviously hideous, as they caused the death of an elephant, but they are also aesthetically some of the ugliest pieces we have seen. They represent the true face of auction houses.”

While lawmakers have praised the newly enforced act’s hard-line stance against the U.K. ivory trade, others fear it does not go far enough to end the poaching of elephants and other endangered animals. The law, for instance, does not protect elephant skins, feet, and other parts that are often collected as trophy items; nor does it address ivory sourced from other mammals, such as ​​walruses or hippopotami.

Louise Paterson, an art lawyer at the London-based firm Charles Russell Speechlys, told Artnet News in an email that “it will likely be some time before the impact of the new ban can be assessed objectively.” She added that “there is always the risk that the ban will simply relocate the ivory trade to other commercial centers and encourage illegal exports to jurisdictions where the ivory trade is less tightly controlled.”

As for the lack of protection for other animals, Paterson suggested that the successful passing and enforcement of the Ivory Act makes the prospect of extending the ban beyond elephants “unlikely to prove very controversial.”

The U.K. government said in a statement that it is “also considering extending the Ivory Act to other ivory-bearing species and will publish the response to the consultation later this year.

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