UK museums oppose clampdown on ivory trade

A campaign by the Duke of Cambridge to enforce a total ban on the ivory trade has been met by a wave of opposition from prominent UK museums, historians and antiques experts.

Current legislation prohibits the sale of ivory items carved after 1947. Now government ministers are considering proposals to extend the ban on the ivory trade to objects over 70 years old. In a parliamentary debate held on 6 February, former environment secretary Owen Paterson urged fellow MPs to take an unflinching approach to ending the trade in historic ivory artefacts. “Do not tell me that we are going to bring the antiques trade to its knees if we limit the trade in items containing ivory in a measured and sensible manner”, he said.

Proposals for a total ban came after the Duke of Cambridge made an impassioned plea last September to tighten rules on the international ivory trade. Speaking at an event held by wildlife conservation organisation Tusk, the Duke of Cambridge said the British government needed to “send an unambiguous message to the world that it is no longer acceptable to buy and sell ivory, rhino horn or other illegal wildlife products”.

While expressing its support for efforts to curb the illegal trade in ivory and protect elephants from slaughter the British Museum has defended the trade in antique objects. “There is no public benefit in restricting the display or movement of ivory works of art made before 1947 and legislation should not extend to cover actions carried out before that date”, a spokesman from the Museum stated. Adopting a similar stance, the Victoria & Albert Museum has said it will continue to acquire pre-1947 objects “where there is a strong link to the collection and within relevant regulations and guidelines”.

Historian David Starkey also weighed in on the issue in defence of the antiquities trade. He said that the legislative proposals represent “one of the largest threats to the preservation of Western decorative arts”. Starkey’s views were echoed by Philip Mould, the antiques dealer. Mould fears that a total ban would destroy the market for historically significant artworks such as miniature ivory portraits of Queen Victoria and compared this to “book-burning and recent cultural vengeance meted out on the buildings of ancient Syria”.

A public consultation on the ban is forthcoming.


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