What are the rules on fossilized ivory? Well, again, I premise this with, to have the most up-to-date information, you need to call the USFWS at 1-800-344-9453 and/or visit their website at:http://www.fws.gov, and also contact the proper department in your State Government.
According to the USFWS, all fossilized ivory, from any animal, is legal to own, buy and sell, national and internationally, except when raw materials and cultural artifacts are taken from public lands, removed from archaeological sites, Native American (Indian) lands, or private lands without permission of the owner, i.e. any item that is acquired legally and under all applicable laws is fair game. There are no known international bans that I am aware of or any known laws that say otherwise, I would be glad to have input from anyone who knows more about this. However, if you are in a foreign country, it would strongly behoove you to check with that government before removing anything, as the pieces can be confiscated from you by US Customs or other US Government officials and repatriated back to the country of origin, and you will not get your money back, as it is your mistake. Also, generally it will not be legal to own, buy or sell pieces that arrive in the US when they violate other Governments export laws, and just because a dealer in China tells you it is legal to transport back to the US, what do you think their main motivation and knowledge base is anyway? The US Government will always blame the error on you, regardless of how much you plead your case by telling you that ignorance is not an excuse!
Here is a document from the Government of Alaska that addresses exactly this issue back in 1994: http://www.law.state.ak.us/pdf/opinions/opinions_1994/94-004_661940484.pdf. The key to this document is the conclusion, which states,
“In summary, applicable federal and state law provides that fossilized ivory may not be excavated, removed, sold, or exchanged, where it is found in an archaeological context, or under circumstances otherwise demonstrating that the material has significance to the cultural or natural history of the state, or to the cultural history of an identifiable Alaska native group. While fossilized ivory may be removed and sold with permission of the federal or state agency with management authority, or with the permission or the private landowner, an item made from fossilized ivory may not be falsely marketed as a Native handicraft, either by Alaska natives or non-Natives, regardless of its origin.”
Now, that being said, you must also understand that the average customs official and law enforcement officer is not an expert and has only minimal training with ivory, and so they generally will not know the difference between fossilized, contemporary or antique ivory, regardless of what they say, which is trouble for the possessor of the ivory item. Ivory identification is a highly specialized area of knowledge. The best thing you can do is to make sure it is well documented as being a legally obtained fossilized specimen – the main point, provenance, provenance, provenance. Your documentation is your trump card to legitimacy with the US and State Governments. If you are not sure, then ask a true expert for assistance.
I truly hope this set of blogs is helping you to understand and untangle the mess surrounding ivory ownership, and it’s trade.
Greg C. Brown, MS, ISA, CAGA. President, Greg C. Brown & Associates, Inc. Appraisal Services. Minnesota Sub-Chapter Chairman, The Explorers Club.