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Antiques

The NGOs (non-governmental organizations) of this world can wield a great deal of power. That is because their message is usually simple, straightforward and about things that are of great importance. Of recent, a number of NGOs in America have focused on the evils of owning ivory and have been able to equate all ivory, antique or modern, to the plight of the African elephant whose numbers are rapidly declining.

The extinction of elephants is an important message, but the focus of these NGOs has been to ban all trade and to scare the living daylights out of anyone who might even think of loaning an antique ivory to an American institution, as is the case of the 9th to 12th century Russian icons that were to be loaned to the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. Who in their right mind would allow such rarity to be loaned if there is a specific threat of destruction inherent in the loan? After all, one thousand year old ivories don’t grow on trees.

The totalitarian approach to a perceived problem has never been a success in human history. You can demonize, you can attempt to stamp out and completely eradicate, but you will never, ever succeed in resolving an issue in such a fashion. The list of failures to this approach is extremely long, no matter how justified the cause has been. Banning the legitimate ivory trade in America will not stop the extinction of elephants—the two are not related.

It is, in fact, a publicity stunt designed to raise awareness and demonstrate the United States commitment to saving elephants—a dubious premise, to say the least. This action is in turn being used to raise the stakes with China and other southeastern Asian countries whose appetite for ivory makes the American consumption look virtually non-existent. We are trying to impress them with our resolve to get them to crack down on their illegal trading. Leading by example may work in the military, but in politics, it is simply vainglorious.

Casualties of this strategy are many. Clearly the fear expressed by the British Museum is justified. So too, are the musicians who won’t wish to bring in their instruments, or themselves for that matter, to play in the US. There are, of course, many more casualties, but the most important will be the loss of knowledge. The NGOs would rather turn a blind eye on this intangible by product of their slash and burn strategy.

Despite their belief that dealers don’t tell the truth about what they sell, the opposite is the truth to that axiom. Indeed, any dealer in the organizations I belong to, the Art and Antique Dealers League of America (AADLA) or the National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America (NAADAA), who lied in such a manner would be expelled. The umbrella organization for these antique associations, CINOA (Confederation Internationale des Negociants en Oeuvres d’Art) are equally clear on this matter.

The understanding of who we are is based on history. The study of history, all aspects of history, is declining. Why is this? Do we wish to repeat the mistakes of the past or do we believe that we really don’t need to know what has gone on before? These questions should be of great concern to all of us as we watch history being destroyed by fanatical religious groups in the Middle East. There is history in ivory as much as in any medium and it has fascinated people for centuries. Ivory has been a rare and valued commodity that the very best craftsmen worked in. Are we no better than fanatical religious groups whose tactics are to unilaterally ignore and destroy knowledge in the form of art? The ivory ban is no better than fundamentalist zealotry with horrible consequences.

Saving elephants requires sanctions on rogue regimes like Robert Mugabe’s whose diminution of park reserve has halved the elephant territory resulting in the death of half of the 40,000 elephants in Zimbabwe. Saving elephants requires a major agenda initiative with China, not the hope that China will act as we act on banning ivory. Saving elephants requires getting the people who know what old ivory is, cataloguing it and creating a data base of antique ivory. Saving elephants, in other words, cannot be a publicity stunt of destroying ivory in public gatherings, it requires thought and concerted action and the will to go after the real villains.

Given the dire warnings I continually hear about illegal ivory financing terrorist organizations, I would have thought that this was a high priority among all governments. That the NGOs are being successful, at least in the United States is undeniable. That their work will save elephants is highly debatable.

That the potential loss is, in some sense equal to the loss of elephants, is the saddest thing of all.