Can you own, buy and sell elephant ivory in the US?

Can you own, buy and sell elephant ivory in the United States?

I preface all of what I say from here on within this blog on ivory with this statement, I am not the legal authorities, so to make sure you know the most current laws on these issues, you must contact the United States Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) for the up to date information at 1-800-344-9453 and/or visit their website at: http://www.fws.gov and the proper department within your State Government. Laws on ivory are confusing and hard to answer. The short answer  to the question, can you own, buy and sell elephant ivory is “yes and no”, it depends on a number of variables and even the state you are in. So, to be as clear as possible I will quote directly from a USFWS fact sheet found at: http://www.fws.gov/international/DIC/species/afe/pdf/Ivory_Fact_Sheet.pdf.

According to the USFWS, there is currently a moratorium under CITIES, and thus by default by the USFWS and the (U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), on all raw African and Asian Elephant Ivory. It is illegal to import and export raw elephant ivory in the U.S., except for properly permitted African elephant hunting trophies. As the Asian elephant is a highly endangered species, in the words of the USFWS, “all commercial trade in Asian elephants and their parts and products is prohibited.” Further more, the USFWS states,

“In general, export of raw African and Asian elephant ivory from the United States is prohibited. Import of raw African elephant ivory, with the exception of sport-hunted trophies, has been banned since the 1989 moratorium. African elephant ivory can be legally owned or bought and sold within the United States providing it meets ESA requirements and State laws. Worked African elephant ivory acquired before its 1978 ESA listing or antique ivory (over 100 years old) may be imported or exported for noncommercial purposes or, in limited situations, for commercial purposes with a certification from the Service. To date, no commercial import of nonantique African elephant ivory has been permitted under the AECA.

“African elephant ivory within the United States that was imported prior to the 1989 ban, imported as sport hunted trophies, or obtained as the result of Federal law enforcement action is considered legal.

“Asian elephant ivory that was purchased prior to its 1976 ESA listing may be sold to others residing in your State, if allowed by your State’s natural resource management agency. However, the sale or commercial transfer of Asian elephant ivory across state lines is regulated and must meet specific requirements of the ESA.”

The key point here is that you must have the proper provenance and documentation for your pieces if you are going to practice any kind of trade in or transport of them. Basically provenance is the documented history of a piece from its origin to your current ownership. Without it, you may not be able to prove age, country of origin, date of importation, etc, which can make you legal susceptible to your piece being confiscated. You can not rely on family stories for this proof, as that is not provenance. Provenance is critical to the appraisal process and achieving the highest appraised values. The lesson, keep all of your family notes, previous appraisal reports, receipts, photographs, etc. with the items, no matter how rough or poorly preserved.

Tomorrow we will address fossilized ivory.

Greg C. Brown, MS, ISA, CAGA.                                                                                                                                                                                    President, Greg C. Brown & Associates, Inc. Appraisal Services.                                                                                                                           Minnesota Sub-Chapter Chairman, The Explorers Club.

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20 thoughts on “Can you own, buy and sell elephant ivory in the US?

  1. Shaun Naveed says:

    Sweet blog! I found it while browsing on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thank you

    • Thank you for reading my blog and for telling me how you found it. I actually do not have any special method for getting found on yahoo, I just write my story, used the tags and categories and then posted it. I wish I could tell you more, because then I could make sure that my blogs were popping up even higher in searches! If you have learned anything about that since sending me your kind note, please let me know, as I would love the help too. Sincerely, Greg.

  2. Joshep says:

    hi there, i got 3 raw legal elephat ivory that i want to sell, got the certificate and everything, can you help by telling me where i can seel them

    • Joseph,

      It would depend on the certificate and country you are in. Where are you located? When and where did you acquire them? If they are legal to have, you can call your countries Fish and Wildlife Services, they can help you make sure they are legal, otherwise, I can take a crack at it, but my services are not free. Many certificates are fakes, just made up by the seller. Where did you get them originally and when? Can you please send detailed photos of what you have to me, including the certificates? You can use gregcbrown@asianappraisals.com.

      Sincerely, Greg.

  3. Alison says:

    I have an ivory piece my parents purchased when we visited Hong Kong back in the 60’s, the problem is we don’t have a bill of sale or documentation for it. My father worked with the State Department at the time, this piece has been in my family since it was purchased and travelled around the world with us. I’d like to know if it came from an African or Asian Elephant, would Fish and Wildlife Services know? I have no intentions of leaving it out of my sight, if I did, it could disappear into someone else’s home. This is what happened to a piece we owned, it was a Bronze Cambodian dancer. We had moved from Orlando to Jacksonville Beach in the late 70’s, Allied Van Lines moved us. The bronze piece was in a box that my parents had listed through the van lines and insured, when the box got to the destination, the statue was gone. We had the state police and FBI involved but nothing was found, my parents were devastated since this piece was given to my French Grandmother back in the 40’s by the then ruler of Hanoi, Vietnam.

    • Alison,

      Yes, this is a problem when you have no verifiable paperwork. However, there may be a few ways to prove these points though. We can help you with this potentially if you like. I will send an email to you from info@asianappraisals.com. Your story is not a rare story unfortunately. Even my Mother was ripped off by a moving company in that say way! Plus, they never pay you the right amount. I feel fairly certain that it is possible some moving company execs do that purposefully, and have a huge warehouse where they keep these things superior pieces that “disappear”, and they pick and choose for their homes and for auctions. You can always win the art and antiques game if you have the inside line on cherry picking the best pieces, and pay less than an item is worth in a settlement!

  4. Barry nance says:

    My wife has several ivory pieces that were given to us by an elderly friend. She would like to take them to Italy and England but is hesitant since we have no record of their history. Although we know they were purchased in the late 60’s in Indonesia. Should she forego the risk and leave them at home and in our safe?

    • I have no idea where my reply disappeared to, but here we go again. My first comment would be to contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department and talk to them, as well as their counter parts in England and Italy. I suspect, because you do not have any proof of age, they will have the right to confiscate the ivory pieces, but only those departments will be able to tell you for sure. If they were mine, I would not travel with them. Get in touch with those agencies, and good luck.

    • By the way, when I say I suspect they will have the right to confiscate them, I mean during your periods of border crossings either direction in any of the countries. They are all signatories to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which is an international agreement between governments all over the world, including these three, with the US being one of the toughest on enforcement.

  5. PatJOwens@gmail.com says:

    Hello and Good Afternoon,

    I have a piece of early 20th century ivory tusk that was carved into a bridge that has been in my family for over 30+ years that sits on a wooden base. What is the regulations on selling or putting an item like this up for auction?

    Thank You
    Patrick

    • Patrick,

      Thanks for the good questions. Unfortunately it is not so simple to answer, and you will probably not like the general answer I am about to give to you. However, it is the best answer that can be honestly given. So, first of all it depends on the laws of the country you are in. If you are in the US, it can also depend on the state you are in. For example, in California, it is illegal now to do almost anything with ivory, period. However, many states allow in state sales and a number of them allow inter-state sales. The best thing you can do to make sure is to contact your state’s Fish and Wildlife Services and ask them what your state’s regulations are on selling ivory. Unfortunately ivory is a ridiculously complex issue and in reality needs to be bought under one set of standards world-wide by all signatories of the CITIES treaty. Sincerely, Greg.

      • PatJOwens@gmail.com says:

        Hello Greg,

        I received your personal email. First I do apologize for the error in the greeting I do have a friend with the same middle initial and last name.
        Second I have send you a file of photos as requested.

        Once again Thank You.
        Patrick

  6. Tim says:

    Hi there,

    My Dad and I inherited a large collection of African and Asian carved Ivory. We’ve held on to it the last few years and now realize we don’t want it anymore. We’d like to sell it, but it appears we might be a few years too late. We live in California. We’ve contacted a couple of companies that would have sold it for us the last few years, but now, it appears we can’t do anything about it. The only documentation that we have, proving providence, are pictures. Any suggestions?

    Thanks,

    • Tim,

      You may be right. The big issue is, you are in California, which has some of the most strict laws on ivory in the world, very literally. Lets have a deeper discussion about this. Please send me an email to info@asianappraisals.com. Sincerely, Greg.

      • Tim Barker says:

        Hi Greg,

        I found your Ivory forum online while I was contemplating my dad’s and my next move in regards to the ivory collection that my Grandfather left my dad.  As you said, our biggest issue seems to be that we live in California.  Our collection is sizable, well over 100 pieces of carved African and Asian ivory.  We also have Mammoth and walrus pieces.  They were all collected over many years by my grandpa.  He documented his collection with pictures, but nothing else.  I’m certain that all of this ivory is pre-ban.  However, we’re not sure if pictures will suffice to show providence.  

        Anyway, I thought I get this conversation started.  I’ve cc’ed my Dad, Rob Barker, in this correspondence so that he can chime in with details.  He also has a collection of pictures that he took a couple of years back that might prove helpful for you to understand the nature of our collection.

        Thanks so much,

        Tim Barker

      • Tim, please contact me directly at info@asianappraisals.com.

  7. steven Sagri says:

    HI,
    We have a small collection of painted ivory miniatures of British military officers, probably from the early 1800’s (We used to be antiques dealers so we are knowledgeable), are these now banned?, this is all rather confusing I would say

  8. steven Sagri says:

    What I mean by “Miniatures” is that they are paintings in small oval frames.
    Thank you

    • Steven,

      Thanks for your emails. It is very tricky and confusing indeed! I would need to see what you have, but the real key is where are you located? If you are in California, as I understand it, all ivory is banned in all ways and from all dates now. I believe it can not be sold or purchased and I believe it can not be transported into or out of the state either. It has essentially been made valueless in CA. Other states have their own rules, but CA is by far the most strict, one of the most strict, if not strictest set of rules in the world. As for if you are in another state or country, they all vary too, making things even more confusing. The best thing you can do is contact your State or National Wild Life Management department (in the US that is the US Fish and Wildlife Services) and ask what the rules are there, or look them up online. It is an extremely convoluted issue. Adding to that you have differences in Asian and African elephant ivory rules, let alone other types of ivory that must be discerned to understand what you have, and also, if it fossilized, or from National or Tribal lands originally!

      If you have real documented proof of their age, and you are not in CA, and you are in the US, you probably have no problems. If the pieces are said to be from a specific date, this technically is not enough, because if a US Fish and Wildlife officer wants to see them, and believes they appear to be newer, thus possibly post ban, then they are considered to be by default post-ban, and so can be confiscated. Some pieces are clearly old enough, but many are questionable in appearance, and thus the need for proper documentation to prove their age and legality. I hope that helps a bit. I suggested checking the rules where you live. You can also contact me and engage my services at info@asianappraisals.com. Good luck, Greg.

  9. Guy,

    I have been extremely busy with clients and trying to pack up, fix up and sell my home. I had not seen this email until now. I am going to call you right now, Greg.

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