I collect antiques.
I have done for quite a few years, now. And I consider myself to be at least reasonably knowledgeable about the items which, and the periods from when I collect.
My main area of collection is antique writing accessories and equipment, although I will collect anything that catches my fancy, so as a result, my collection can be rather eclectic. Over the years I’ve noticed that I’ve amassed a small collection of ivory. And this is what this post is about. Ivory. What is is, how to I.D. it, where to find it, how to get it and all that other good stuff.
Ivory is beautiful. Ivory is rare. Ivory is expensive. And ivory is fraught with legal, moral and other kinds of difficulties. So let’s get right into it!
What Is Ivory?
In simplest terms, ivory is teeth. It’s the enamel-like substance that makes up the core and exterior of tusks and teeth. It’s famed for its colour, texture, ease of carving and variety of size and shape.
Where does Ivory Come From?
Yes. But there are also a number of other sources. These include hippos, walruses, seals, narwhals, and the extinct mammoth. Mammoth ivory is legal to purchase and trade, as it does not harm living creatures, however, it is very expensive. It’s also legal to trade other ivory, provided that the ivory comes from a creature that died of natural causes. As poaching ivory-bearing animals is illegal, quantities of legal ivory are very small and the prices are, unsurprisingly, prohibitively expensive.
Is it Legal to Own Ivory?
Yes…with a ‘but’.
It IS legal to own, buy and sell antique ivory. The animal’s already dead, so there’s no issues surrounding poaching, or wondering where the ivory came from. Nobody cares about an elephant who died 150 years ago. You can’t be prosecuted for owning antique ivory (s’long as you didn’t steal it!). I own about a dozen pieces of antique ivory myself. All purchased quite legally from antiques shops and flea-markets, fairs and other such events.
Owning NEW ivory is fraught with ALL KINDS of issues. ‘New’ ivory basically means anything which was harvested, or processed in any way, after the Second World War, and especially, after the 1970s and 80s.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay sure. Whatever. But is it LEGAL to own new ivory?
YES. But owning new ivory comes with so many strings attached, you could strum it like a harp.
It IS legal to buy and own modern ivory, but when you see the hassle that goes into it…you might change your mind. Even expert antiques dealers and auctioneers who have been doing this for decades couldn’t tell you how hard it is. There’s more loopholes in this than the curtain wall on a castle. Don’t believe me? Here goes…
It is legal for Alaskan natives to sell ivory (walrus ivory, usually) to non-natives. BUT ONLY AFTER the animal (which was hunted) has been thoroughly used up, FIRST. Killing the walrus just for the ivory and discarding the rest of the animal is illegal.
It’s legal to sell MAMMOTH ivory, because mammoths are already dead, so no live animals are hurt in extracting the ivory. But it’s prohibitively expensive.
It’s legal to sell narwhal ivory. But again, you need paperwork.
It’s legal to sell ‘vintage ivory’ (that is, ivory that’s old, but which is still postwar), so long as you have full documentation.
Ivory, Bone and Plastic
For whatever reason – Perhaps you inherited it – perhaps you found it – perhaps you bought it at a flea-market or antiques shop – you have a piece of ivory.
Or at least, you think you do. But you have no idea if it is. How do you tell? Here is my guide to determining if something is, or is not ivory.
Here, we have a closeup of three different materials. One of them is ivory. Two of them are often mistaken for ivory. What’s the difference??
The items are a page-turner, a paper-folder, and the scales from a straight-razor. They all look roughly the same, but only one is the real McCoy. How do you tell which one of these three materials is ivory? Well, to help you with that, here is my own little guide:
…is a natural product. If it looks absolutely perfect, it ain’t ivory. Even the most perfect ivory will have flaws of some kind. Spots. Inclusions. Lines. Pitting. Stuff like that.
…is like wood. It has a grain that you can either see with your eyes, or feel with your fingernails. If you don’t see or feel some sort of grain – be suspicious!
…grain is never uniform. Like wood-grain, it’s random and goes all over the place. If the ‘grain’ is perfectly spaced out (see the straight razor at the bottom), then it is not ivory. It is plastic with a faux ‘grain’ on top to make it look like ivory.
…is normally very smooth, with minimal pitting and is usually an off-white cream or darker beige colour.
…does NOT have a whole heap of pitting and holes and black spots on it. Black spots and deep, frequent pitting (large enough to catch your fingernail in) means that the item is BONE, NOT IVORY. The black spots are marrow-flecks.
…can vary from piece to piece, depending on age, condition, and of course, the animal it’s taken from.
Beware of the term ‘French Ivory’. This is just a fancy way of saying ‘celluloid’, which itself was also called Xylonite and Parkesine (two early names for what later was called celluloid).
If the above guide doesn’t help, another way of testing for ivory is the ‘hot needle’ test. Heat up a needle until it’s really, really hot. Then stick it into the item which you think is ivory.
If it is ivory – nothing happens. If it isn’t ivory, then the item will melt, smoulder or the needle will sink into the item. Or the item might be bone.
If the item is celluloid, then DON’T TRY THIS!!! Antique celluloid is HIGHLY COMBUSTIBLE and it WILL burst into flames if it’s exposed to high enough heat. having seen what happens firsthand what happens when you set fire to celluloid (I did it as an experiment with a broken fountain pen) – I can assure you – you don’t want antique plastic flaring up and exploding in front of you!
Owning and Looking After Ivory
Owning ivory is legal, provided that it is ANTIQUE IVORY, or, if it’s modern ivory – if you have all the necessary documentation. With antique ivory, you don’t need documentation, so long as you can prove how old it is by some other means (maybe it’s part of a set, maybe it’s part of another antique, etc).
The only exception to this is the United States.
In the EU, Great Britain, and most countries of the former British Empire, it’s perfectly legal to own antique ivory – and you don’t need any supporting paperwork. Antiques dealers can sell it and trade it quite openly from their shops, market-stalls and elsewhere, and the discerning public can buy it, own it, use it and collect it as they wish.
But in America, laws were passed as recently as 2014 which state that ALL IVORY – including antique ivory – MUST come with certificates and paperwork from the relevant government departments stating that this ivory was legally purchased and accessed. There are NO exceptions to this.
The rest of the world doesn’t care – If it’s antique ivory, and it’s OBVIOUSLY antique ivory – then obviously, no animals in recent times died for it – so unless you stole it – it’s legal. This is the case in Britain, Europe, Australia and a number of other countries. But in the United States, all ivory, regardless of origin, provenance and history, must come with government documentation. Unsurprisingly, it’s rubbed a lot of people the wrong way – especially antiques dealers, who have now essentially been branded criminals for things that they purchased quite legally.
If you are in the ‘States, or if you’re going there with ivory – watch out!!
But, for whatever reason – you have ivory. You inherited, or bought it, or found it. Now what do you do to keep it safe?
Ivory should be handled with care. If you touch it often enough, it will eventually turn yellow (like those antique piano-keys), and it can dry out and crack. So keep it away from heat and strong sunlight as much as possible. So long as it’s kept cool, away from heat and strong light, an item made of ivory should last for many, many, many years.
My Ivory Collection
This is my personal collection of ivory, amassed over a period of about five years. It’s comprised of page-turners (the two flat pieces, bottom left), paper-knives (two on bottom right), ink-erasers (inner left and inner right. Spearpoint blades). Letter-opener (top left, next to ink-eraser). Button-hook, hole-punch, crochet-hook and file, and at the top – a ruler made of ivory. All these pieces are at least 100 years old (in some cases at least 150 years old!), and are all in wonderful condition.
Every piece here is ivory – and you can see the subtle differences in shade, finish, and colour. No two pieces are exactly the same. That is because this is a natural product which, like wood – is always a little different from sample to sample. Colour also varies from sample to sample. Compare the two ink-knives – the left one is darker, the right one is lighter.
This is my 13th piece of ivory – another paper-knife/letter-opener (or doctor’s tongue-depressor, as a few have suggested).
Hopefully this guide has been useful and helpful to people who own, or want to own, pieces of antique ivory :)