There are a number of false claims about ivory that are currently circulating in the news. The biggest false claim is that New York is the second largest ivory market in the world. I don’t know where or how this fact was established, but anyone reading the CITES report from 2013 will quickly see that America, as a whole, is insignificant as a market for illegal ivory. It is a talking point for those people that want to see a ban on all ivory sales and it clearly isn’t true.

The second shibboleth is that by banning all ivory in the United States, we will save the elephant. This is a leap of faith, not a fact. People who would like to save the elephant and who claim that this bold moral stance will set an example for the world are being, I feel, naïve. America’s moral standing in the world has suffered since we went into Viet Nam in the 1960’s and was severely damaged by the Iraq War, the  lack of WMDs, Abu Ghraib and, well the list is a long one.

There is something to be said for moral stances. However, if they aren’t going to be effective, and it hasn’t been as far as antiquities are concerned as the smuggling goes on and the problem of illegal excavations continues. Furthermore, it is clear that the Chinese, in particular, don’t have any compulsion to listen to the West for any reason as they continue to build coal fed power plants despite the obvious pollutants and their deleterious effect on climate.

The most difficult thing to clarify, which is less of a fact than a supposition, is that the endangered elephants will be saved by the action of banning ivory in America. I know that if all of us who deal antique ivory believed this to be the case, we would endorse the ban wholeheartedly. Working to save the elephant should be a goal, but economics notwithstanding, the argument is susceptibly weak for a host of reasons, the most obvious being that the vast majority of poached ivory goes to Asia.

Facts and emotion bang heads all the time. There are inconvenient truths everywhere regarding the demise of the elephant. Zimbabwe’s need for capital, for example, is leading to Mugabe opening up game preserves to mining which will reduce the elephant’s territory in Zimbabwe which will impact the herd. Mugabe is going to allow elephants slaughtered to get cash every day of the week. How many other situations like this are brewing? I would venture that our State Department knows and so should the people who wish to save the elephant.


My walk down Madison Avenue every morning allows me to enjoy window shopping. I see some of my competitors’ windows which is always fun. Gerry Bland, between 90th and 91st, has such a terrific eye, and it is always interesting to see if he has something new in his shop, particularly if it is by Eve Kaplan, a ceramicist whose work is astounding. Gerry can really surprise me with the furniture he buys. It is always stylish whether it is 18th, 19th 20th or 21stcentury.

Florian Papp is the next shop I pass between 75th and 76th and is the reason that I am writing this blog. Their windows are always good, but their Easter window is superb. Little chicks (edible?) in a row lie on three benches backed by a Chinese screen. It sets a really lovely tone compared to all the supra-stylish clothes shops that surround it. Not that the other shops are bad looking, but in way they all look the same. Papp’s window provokes an emotion and, if you have a sense of humor, a laugh.

The last window I pass is Mallet between 73 and 74. Their windows don’t vary greatly. Their trademark is a pair of curved windows that draw you in to look down the alley of the shop. There is often some magnificent piece that is well lit at the back of the shop which is well worth stopping for, but if you are looking for humor, you tend not to find it. Their Christmas window is just great, however. It is an Advent calendar in boxes with each numbered box getting opened every day before Christmas.

I don’t know how long these windows will remain as New York landlords are really going for very big rents these days. A friend of mine that owns some shops on Lexington Avenue told me that he had two people fighting over 1200 square feet, meaning that the price per month just went up and up. I might add that he thinks it is ridiculous, but that he is hardly going to say no to a larger rent.  I think he is more than ready to drop it, however, should the market ever start to plunge.


I attended a conference yesterday hosted by the Committee for Cultural Policy, a “non-profit organization that informs the public on policies and laws that affect the international movement of cultural property.” Basically, the discussion was about the White Paper published by the Committee in 2013 titled, “A Proposal to Reform Law and Policy Relating to the International Exchange of Cultural Policy”. It is, essentially, “a review of policy from a museum and collector perspective”.

I expected to be somewhat bored as their focus was largely on antiquities, a forum that has garnered more than its fair share of bad publicity with tomb robbers, illegal purchases and foreign government intrusions into museums demanding the return of stolen goods. It was, in fact, intriguing and informative on the way in which governments make and enforce rules. Of course, this applies to the current debate about ivory which, at the moment seems like a foregone conclusion that it will be banned.

In essence, it is clear that government bodies inform themselves about issues by consulting certain groups. The primary source as regards antiquities has been, apparently, archaeologists. Archaeologists have a point of view that pieces should remain in the ground and be excavated by archaeologists in order to learn the most from a particular object or group of objects. This has validity, but not always, since pieces were transported everywhere—a known fact—and that their sites often have little or nothing to do with an object.

The issues were not just how the government has informed themselves to create law, but also how it has been carried out. This is, of course, the most dangerous gray area of all since foreign governments will try very hard to shame countries into returning items they feel are theirs. The Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles both come to mind, but there are a host of other things, some of which have been returned because the political cast on returning an item is better than standing firm and resisting.

Furthermore, there is a double indemnity to the law in that there are overlapping statutes which, by design, create ambiguity and give prosecutors and  judges greater latitude of interpretation. Wrapped up altogether, it appears that museums, collectors and dealers are under siege from not only foreign governments, but also from our own government and that the rationale guiding this policy is either one sided and/or entirely political. Furthermore, it is not even party related, it is bureaucracy driven. Is this any way to run a government?

 


The television show “Vice” airs on HBO on Friday nights and offers in-depth coverage of news, or perhaps I should say, a more visceral reality based coverage of the news. I watched because one of the segments was on the vanishing rhino population which is being decimated by poachers who can make as much as $5,000 for a rhino horn. One clip showed a rhino mutilated by poachers and yet still alive—it was both appalling and depressing to see such wanton cruelty.

I have talked about the cultural imperative that certain items have in particular cultures and “Vice” made it very clear that this is an absolute truth. One young entrepreneur in Hanoi had some rhino horn that was his father’s and which he inherited. He quite obviously believed that rhino horn had certain qualities that would keep his body healthy that no diet or medicine could. Another man, a cancer patient, had given up on chemotherapy, but not on rhino horn.

Rhino horns, which are not dissimilar from either hair or finger nails as it is made of keratin, will grow back if they are cut which has prompted one African entrepreneur to breed rhinos and cut their horns. Quite naturally, he wishes to see the trade in horn legalized. In a way, it makes sense since the cultural imperative seems impossible to reverse. If I were to look for the root of the problem, I would say that the cultural imperative is at the core of it. The poachers recognize and exploit it.

The cultural imperative is also what drives the trade in ivory. Owning carved ivory in China, I am told, is not unlike how Americans felt in the 1950’s about modern conveniences and one’s status for having the latest labor saving machine. In China and many other parts of Southeast Asia and Japan, carved ivory offers an elevated status to the owner of such objects. This is not true anywhere else. Americans who buy ivory carvings are buying the decoration, not the status.

I was asked by a friend to see if I could put myself into the position of the US government and try to figure out how I would try to stop the slaughter of endangered animals. I honestly don’t know just how I would. The cultural divide that separates the US from both Africa and Asia, is significant. One thing I would not do, however, is pretend that they do not exist. This is where I would look for solutions, not in the hope that a law designed to affect the American public would have any consequence.


The French grape vine was under siege in the 19th century by an aphid commonly known as the ‘grape phylloxera’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_French_Wine_Blight). There could have been a host of responses to the threat including an embargo on American vines which caused the problem in the first place which would have been too late, or perhaps toxic chemicals that would kill the bug. On the other end, French wine producers might just have tried to pick off the aphids (as they did with the aid of chickens and toads) and kept their wine within France (which they did not do), certainly limiting solutions given what French wine has been to the French economy. In the end, American vine roots were grafted to French vines since American vines could resist the predation of the aphid.

I am reminded of this chapter in history because of the current plight of the African elephant. The elephant is under siege because of poachers who are responding to the market value of ivory. Raw tusks are worth a great deal these days. But that worth is almost entirely in Asia where there is both a tradition of ivory carving that has never lapsed, unlike that of Europe where ivory carving is largely a thing of the past, and where the majority of Asians do not understand that to harvest a husk you must kill an elephant. America’s response to the elephant’s plight is to attempt to render ivory valueless by banning the sale of all ivory. Please sirs, the problem and criminality of illegal ivory poaching is not in this country as the CITES conference report of 2013 makes quite clear.

America loves the silver bullet solution. If we pass a law, then we, as American citizens, will obey it and all will be right with the world. That really worked well with Prohibition. Similarly, the marijuana laws that once caused the incarceration of thousands of young men, mostly black, are finally being recognized as unsuccessful. We learn, but it takes time and in that time we turn law abiding citizens into criminals or skeptics of the American system, neither of which is healthy for our society. The law to ban the trading of all ivory is a false premise. If we really want to help the elephants, it will require multiple armed forces ready to go after sophisticated poachers. Asian buyers will also need educating about the havoc their cultural imperative is causing. The solution is, as it always has been, at the root of the problem.