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When you can't ignore the elephant in the room



A cut above: Victorian Irish mamaluke sword, by John Ireland with ivory grips

A cut above: Victorian Irish mamaluke sword, by John Ireland with ivory grips

A Japanese Meiji period (1868-1912) ivory netsuke of a crawling infant sold in July for €2,100

A Japanese Meiji period (1868-1912) ivory netsuke of a crawling infant sold in July for €2,100


A cut above: Victorian Irish mamaluke sword, by John Ireland with ivory grips

Let's get one thing straight. The illegal trade in elephant ivory is vile on every conceivable level. The number of savannah elephants in Africa is declining fast, mainly due to poaching, and the future extinction of this glorious species is a real possibility. Nobody wants that. But, for people who like antiques, this poses an ethical dilemma. What's to be done with the ivory that you already have?

If you have a collection of antique objects, there is almost certainly some ivory in the mix. Until the relatively recent invention of hard plastic, it was the durable material of choice. In some objects, ivory is the primary material.

Netsuke, those small carved ornaments worn as part of Japanese traditional dress, were most often carved in ivory. But, in many cases, the ivory is less obvious. Portrait miniatures were often painted on ivory. It was also used in musical instruments - piano keys would be the obvious one - as well as jewellery, furniture, cutlery, hairbrushes, weapons, umbrellas and auctioneers' gavels.

One solution is to destroy it. This seems a bit extreme, but in 2014, The Guardian reported that William, Duke of Cambridge, would "like to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed". Another option is to live with it. The elephant's troubles are over and the object - whatever it might be - has become layered with the stories of the people who carved it, shaped it, inlaid it, and owned it and used it. It's no longer just a material, it's also a historical record. Or you can sell it.


A Japanese Meiji period (1868-1912) ivory netsuke of a crawling infant sold in July for €2,100

A Japanese Meiji period (1868-1912) ivory netsuke of a crawling infant sold in July for €2,100

A Japanese Meiji period (1868-1912) ivory netsuke of a crawling infant sold in July for €2,100

But the legislation around the sale and export of ivory is a tightening noose. Ireland is a signatory to the CITES treaty, designed to protect endangered plants and animals. Under the current regime, international trade in ivory is banned, but with some exemptions.

Items that were "significantly altered from their natural raw state" before 1947 can be traded within and exported from the EU. This means ivory that has been carved, shaped or otherwise processed. So if an Irish person has an antique object made of ivory, or with ivory inclusions, they can sell it. And, at the moment, there's a market for it.

In the Collector's Cabinet Auction that took place at Mullen's in July, a Japanese Meiji period (1868-1912) carved and stained ivory netsuke, by Yasuaki (Homei), of a crawling infant wearing a red bib tied with green ribbons (est €500 to €700) sold for €2,100.

But you can only sell to countries that allow the import of ivory. That excludes the United States, where a near-total ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory went into effect in 2016.

"It is illegal to import ivory into the United States," says Stuart Purcell, auctioneer. "A client of mine bought a mamaluke sword, a style worn by an officer of general rank, in a UK auction. He had it confiscated by US customs because the grips were made of ivory. He is resigned to never receiving it."

In 2018, the UK parliament passed the Ivory Act, which instituted an "almost total ban" on the trade in ivory. It's quite likely that European legislation, currently less stringent that the UK Ivory Act, may follow in its footsteps. The argument for this is that the legal trade in ivory can be a cover for illegal trading.

The ivory ban has led to some truly nutty behaviour. In 1991, a George III mahogany commode attributed to Thomas Chippendale sold at Christie's for £935,000, making it the the most expensive piece of English furniture ever sold. It was made in mahogany and Indian ebony with interior pigeon holes inlaid with ivory letters from A-Z. In 2018, it reappeared at Christies, with a lower estimate of £3m. It failed to sell.

A spokesperson for Christie's told the Antiques Trade Gazette that: "the sellers of this commode decided to have the ivory replaced with ivorine ahead of the sale to enable ease of movement." Ivorine is a type of plastic invented in 1899 and made from formaldehyde and skimmed milk. It's safe to say that, both from the point of view of the object's historical integrity and its monetary value, the intervention was a bad idea.

See sheppards.ie; mullenslaurelpark.com

In the Salerooms


This year, Dolan’s Annual Summer Auction in Ballyconneely, Connemara, will take place online. Viewing will run as usual, in concurrence with social distancing protocols, from Tuesday, July 28, giving potential bidders and those in search of a cultural outing the opportunity to see the art in person.

But the actual auction, which takes place on Bank Holiday Monday, August 3, and Tuesday, August 4, will be conducted online, supplemented by telephone and commission bidding. Potential highlights include paintings by Charles Vincent Lamb (est €8,500 to €10,000); Grace Henry (est €4,800 to €6,500); Norah McGuinness (€8,500 to €9,300); and Harry Kernoff (est €9,000 to €12,000). And a rocking horse!

See dolansart.com.

Fonsie Mealy

“Take Peacock’s Dung powdered: take as much as will lie on a sixpence in a spoonful of white-wine for three mornings together.” This cure for Megrim in the Head comes from a collection of Quaker Medical Manuscripts complied by Mary Leadbeater (1758-1826) of Ballitore, Co Kildare.

The collection (est €1,500 to €2,000) sold for €10,000 at Fonsie Mealy’s Summer Rare Book Sale, which took place on July 15. The collection also included a Cure for Lunacy from The Farmer’s Journal (1825), a tried and true cure for The King’s Evil; An extraordinary Cure for Pains; Ointment of Marshmallows; Snail Syrup; an Elder-tea for St Anthony’s Fire; cures for colds, cancers, eye pearls and burns, an ague or dropsy or wind; and the forerunner to aspirin. See fonsiemealy.ie.


An auction of 20th Century Design & Contemporary Art at Adam’s will go on view today (under strict health guidelines), showing an interesting mix of mid-century modern furniture and (mostly) contemporary art.

Expect big name designers — Corbusier, Johannes Andersen, Ico Parisi, Pietro Chiesa and Louis Kalff — among them, with art works by artists, including Callum Innes, John Shinnors, Mark Francis, Elizabeth Magill, Charles Tyrell, John Doherty and Bridget Riley. The auction will take place on July 28 at 2pm. Concurrently, a timed auction of Fine Wine and Spirits from the Cellar of Peter White and other Notable Collectors continues until Monday, August 10 at 10am.

See adams.ie.

Indo Property