Collectors of artwork containing ivory may find themselves with a problem when it comes to planning an estate or probating a will: Many such objects are banned from sale, and museums may not accept them as donations.
The laws involving ivory are strict, because the aim is to shut down the market and put a stop to the poaching of African and Asian elephants.
Regulations established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit the sale of African or Asian elephant ivory across state lines only if it’s over 100 years old, hasn’t been repaired or modified after Dec. 27, 1973, or is an object such as a musical instrument, table or gun that contains less than 200 grams of the material.
How to prove it
All of this requires some form of documentation, but Craig Hoover, an international affairs division chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says, “We aren’t overly prescriptive about what types of documents you need to have.”
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An acceptable form of proof might be a dated permit issued by the government in the country where the object originated or a photograph of the object that dates from before the restrictions are applied.
He adds that “documentation from a will or a sworn statement” might be satisfactory, even an old letter from grandma that makes reference to the ivory. The Fish and Wildlife website has a fact sheet for owners.
The trouble is, many people don’t have documentation. The object you inherited may well be over 100 years old, but if grandma didn’t mention it in her diary or a letter, or save a detailed receipt, you probably won’t be able to sell it.
Likewise, if you own ivory that comes from animals other than elephants but can’t prove it, the artwork is bound by the same restrictive rules.
Stuck with bones
“Without paperwork, you can own it but not sell it,” says Kevin P. Ray, a lawyer with the Chicago-based law firm Greenberg Traurig. “You can bequeath it to an heir, but you might not be able to make a gift of it to a museum if the museum has acquisition policies prohibiting the accession of undocumented objects.”
Owners of ivory and scrimshaw may take objects for a DNA test at a commercial laboratory. Most state universities have such labs, with tests costing a few hundred dollars, according to Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. Additionally, the ivory can be carbon dated to determine its age, which costs between $ 500 and $ 750 per item.
Mr. Grant is a writer in Amherst, Mass. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.