Massachusetts sees brisk trade in illicit ivory
The Beverly auctioneer made quick work of a bullwhip belonging to television cowboy Rex Trailer and a 19th-century Russian icon before turning later to Chinese figurines that had been advertised as wood.
Except the pair weren’t elaborately carved wood. They were ivory. And they sold for $600 at Kaminski Auctions without proof of their age, which is required by the US government.
Such is the murky world of the ivory trade, where few transactions are scrutinized, few questions are asked, and understaffed federal agents are overwhelmed by a market in which 30,000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks.
That trade, much of it illegal, is doing brisk business in Massachusetts, according to a prominent wildlife organization that conducted a survey this year on ivory sales in the United States.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare ranked Boston fourth among US cities in its study of ivory advertised on Craigslist, a popular online marketplace. And nearly all of the ivory items — tusks, jewelry, furniture, and statues — were being offered without the proof of age and origin required for a legal sale.
As a result, wildlife activists said, some of these items could belong to the vast cache of elephant ivory, carved and uncarved, that is smuggled into the United States by an industrial-size criminal network.
“We don’t have a system in the United States to determine whether what people are seeing online, or in a store, or in an antique shop is legal or not,” said Azzedine Downes, chief executive officer of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which conducted the survey in March.
“There’s no real fear of being found out,” Downes said.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has made illegal ivory sales and imports its top priority. To spread the word, the agency earlier this month crushed a ton of ivory in a public display at Times Square in New York.
The ivory had been seized during an undercover operation, but the agency’s 198 law-enforcement officers are able to investigate only a small portion of crimes.
“You’re looking at multiple tons of ivory coming in across the country, much of it illegally and under the radar,” said Adam Roberts, chief executive officer of Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group.
The size of the Massachusetts market is impossible to gauge accurately, federal authorities said. But the Craigslist survey conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a fleeting snapshot that illuminated only a sliver of the problem, showed that Boston’s healthy economy is a powerful magnet for ivory, Downes said.
“There is a correlation between wealth centers and the sale of ivory,” Downes said. “There’s always been an allure.”
The San Francisco area ranked first in the number of ivory items offered for sale between March 16 and 20 on Craigslist, followed by Los Angeles, South Florida, and Boston, which also ranked fourth in the value of its ivory.
A British and Kenyan report published in 2008 ranked Boston and Cambridge as the country’s seventh-largest ivory market. Overall, the United States ranks second in ivory trade, trailing only China.
Under a complicated welter of federal wildlife laws and regulations, African elephant ivory can be sold within the United States only if it was lawfully imported before 1990, or lawfully imported after 1990 but shown to have been taken from the wild before 1976.
“The obligation is on the seller” to document compliance, said Craig Hoover, chief of the wildlife trade and conservation branch of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kaminski Auctions canceled its $600 ivory sale within days of the transaction, citing the legal dangers of selling ivory without proof of age. In the week before the sale, a Kaminski appraiser confirmed that the figurines were ivory for a Globe reporter who did not identify himself. He also told the reporter that the ivory might be difficult to resell out of state.
When asked why Kaminski had advertised the ivory as wood, vice president Steven Demers said he did not know.
Edward Grace, deputy chief of law enforcement for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said auction houses must identify ivory correctly.
“If someone advertises something as wood, when they know it’s ivory, then it’s false labeling,” Grace said. “They either need to redo their catalog listing or take it out of the sale.”
Internet traffic accounts for much of the trade in ivory, which can fetch up to $1,500 a pound, but ivory also can be found on the shelves of some antique houses in Massachusetts.
Many of these items are more than a century old, but unscrupulous sellers will use stains or other techniques to make recent ivory look antique.
“It’s so easy to make newly poached ivory look like old ivory. That’s essentially the problem in a nutshell,” said state Senator Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who has filed legislation to ban all sales of African elephant ivory in Massachusetts.
“It can be heated and dried out and cracked, just like furniture can be. It’s carved in the style of various periods, and just like any antique or piece of furniture, it’s tough to know the authenticity,” said Lewis, a native of South Africa.
The bill is supported by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell Animal Medical Center, and Zoo New England.
Many ivory traders use false documents to deceive authorities. Last month, a Concord woman pleaded guilty to conspiring with Chinese nationals to smuggle ivory to China and mislabeling ivory as wood.
The woman, Carla Marsh, helped ship ivory that had been purchased at auction houses in the United States, according to court documents. She once suggested that items be mailed through the US Postal Service, because “it’s less expensive than UPS and does not get scrutinized quite as much in Customs.”
In addition to the Kaminski auction, ivory also was available at two of four antique shops visited recently on Charles Street in Boston.
At Elegant Findings Antiques, a visitor was shown ivory that had been painted with Napoleon’s portrait.
Valued at more than $2,000, the item had been given by the French emperor to one of his officers, according to a handwritten note that accompanied the artwork. Although the ivory appeared antique, no independent proof was available.
At Marika’s Antique Shop, ivory figures from Japan were displayed on a shelf. Their sales history is known, a staff person said, but not their age.
Some antique dealers in Massachusetts believe all of their peers must stop selling ivory.
“Antique dealers and auction houses have to take an ethical or moral stance,” said Tom Lang, co-owner of Alexander Westerhoff Antiques in Essex. “Ivory has got to be devalued in the marketplace.”
US wildlife officials said they are committed to a near-total ban on ivory sales, and that they are moving to prohibit the interstate trade of ivory and limit the number of imported elephant trophies.
Wildlife advocates say the clock is ticking.
“This is really one of those times in history when you have to decide as a person to contribute to changing society,” said Downes, at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “A trinket is a live elephant roaming Africa. That’s the choice.”