Amazon, Sotheby’s face £250,000 fines over ivory sales

A day after the Westminster government introduced £250,000 fines and criminal convictions for dealing in ivory, shops such as Amazon and eBay and auction houses including Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams are still offering the product.

The ban under the 2018 Ivory Act is designed to stop the trade in ivory. It came into force on 6 June 2022.

It gave DEFRA minister Lord Zac Goldsmith the opportunity to position the government alongside animal rights organisations the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Born Free. They released a joint statement.

It includes a clause which allows the courts to fine websites for selling ivory products abroad if that website is visible in the UK.

The Ivory Act also makes provision for DEFRA to recruit and pay for a new police force. ‘Accredited Civilian Officers’ or ACOs, who are likely to be drawn from animal rights organisations, can now enter your home without permission and seize your goods. Read the full rules here.

This is the first private police force established by a UK government department since the Ministry of Defence formed the Royal Military Police in 1946. It continues a trend established under the Johnson government for ‘environmental police’ charged with cracking down on country people. Formed in 2021, the Office for Environmental Protection has wide-ranging powers to investigate and take legal action against organisations or people who break the raft of new environmental laws the prime minister is trying to bring in. 

There are no details of whom DEFRA secretary George Eustice plans to appoint as ACOs, nor are there details of the application  process and rates of pay for ACOs. Goldsmith’s close links with animal rights organisations mean the ACO system is likely to be a conduit for taxpayer funding of groups such as IFAW.

Meanwhile, there are reports that furniture retailers are changing descriptions of their goods from ‘ivory inlay’ to ‘bone inlay’ in order to circumvent the ban. Ivory products have been sold under code words such as ‘unburnable bone’, ‘ox-bone’ and ‘white gold’ following foreign ivory products bans.

In New Zealand  in 2018, an English immigrant had his 123-year-old antique piano returned to him with its ivory key tops removed and dumped by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC). Julian Paton, who moved to New Zealand to become a University of Auckland professor, told local newspapers: “This whole situation is beyond belief.”

Unusually for a DEFRA law, which usually covers just England, the Ivory Act applies to the whole of the UK. None of DEFRA’s sister departments across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have commented on the ban, which will see DEFRA-appointed ACOs operating within their jurisdictions. 

The ban includes five categories of ivory items that may be exempt:

  • pre-1918 items of outstanding artistic, cultural or historical value and importance
  • pre-1918 portrait miniatures
  • pre-1947 items with low ivory content
  • pre-1975 musical instruments
  • acquisitions made by qualifying museums

If you want to sell an ivory item that you think falls into one of the exemption categories and you live in the UK, you can apply to the England-based Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) for an exemption certificate for pre-1918 items of outstanding artistic, cultural or historical value and importance or registration in the case of other exempt items.

The ivory ban does not cover gifts of ivory or inherited ivory. Auctioneer Lyon & Turnbull says that owning, giving and bequeathing ivory is still legal in the UK. 

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