Antique ivory: what to do with inherited ivory in the UK?

08 September 2021


Please note that while we really hope you enjoy this blog, this is not an area of expertise for us.
With that in mind, we would kindly ask that you do not contact us about any further information on this topic as we don't want to disappoint you.

Are you unsure about what to do with inherited ivory in the UK, perhaps due to ethical considerations or legal uncertainty?

It’s completely understandable - knowing what to do with inherited ivory in the UK is not always straightforward.

Many households own antique ivory artefacts, first acquired many years ago and likely passed down through the generations.

This article will look at the current legal situation for selling antique ivory in the UK.

We’ll also try to bring some clarity to tricky questions such as how much is antique ivory worth and ultimately, what to do with inherited ivory in the UK?

Antique ivory

Antique ivory items are unlikely to be entire tusks or collectibles made solely of ivory

In the vast majority of cases, antique ivory items are unlikely to be entire tusks or collectibles made solely of ivory.

Ivory traces could feature in anything from 18th-century antique furniture to 19th-century picture frames, but it has been used in artefacts for thousands of years.

For example, ivory was used in luxury goods during the days of Tutankhamun, who reigned in ancient Egypt c.1332–1323 BC.

However, to prevent elephant poaching, the ivory trade was rightly banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1989.

This ban meant that ivory could not be traded unless it was worked into its current form before March 1947.

Deciding what to do with inherited ivory in the UK

The law is becoming stricter, after the Ivory Act 2018

Now the law is becoming stricter, after the Ivory Act 2018, driven by then-environment secretary Michael Gove, was passed.

The stated aim was to “introduce a near-total ban on the import, export and dealing of items containing elephant ivory in the UK” barring some exemptions we’ll cover shortly.

At the time of writing, the legislation has not yet been implemented - but a consultation was launched in March 2021 with a view to eventual enforcement.

You only need to register and seek certification on ivory items for the purposes of dealing

When weighing up what to do with inherited ivory in the UK, before this consultation the government provided some reassurance for those in possession of antique ivory.

It confirmed that you only need to register and seek certification on ivory items for the purposes of dealing.

This implies that for those in possession of antique ivory, continuing to pass down family artefacts to the next generation, remains an option.

Selling antique ivory in the UK

If owners can prove the ivory content and year it was worked into its current form, they may be able to explore selling antique ivory in the UK

The Ivory Act 2018 features a list of exemptions to the aforementioned ban, including:

  • Items with less than 10% ivory by volume, made pre-1947
  • Musical instruments - such as pianos - with an ivory content of less than 20% by volume, made pre-1975
  • Portrait miniatures made pre-1918, with a surface area of 320cm² maximum
  • Sales to qualifying museums, or hire agreements
  • Items of outstanding artistic, cultural or historic value, made pre-1918

For the latter, expert advice would be needed to verify that an artefact is rare and important enough to qualify.

This list suggests that if owners can prove the ivory content and year it was worked into its current form, they may be able to explore selling antique ivory in the UK.

How much is antique ivory worth

How much is antique ivory worth, if it falls into the exemption criteria? Naturally that depends on a range of factors such as age, quality, authenticity, rarity and so on.

We’ve written in detail previously about how to get the best deal for your collectibles - similar options should work when, if legal to sell, you’re wondering how much to charge for your prized possession.

One of the most reputable websites for online price guides is considered to be Kovels.com.

Summary: what to do with inherited ivory in the UK

We hope this guide has helped you think about what to do with inherited ivory in the UK - whether that’s selling, keeping it in the family or something else entirely.

For more information, the British Antique Dealers’ Association (BADA) has recently issued advice on antique ivory.

At Westland London, we have vast experience dealing in fine decorative antiques and you may find what you’re looking for in our collection - please get in touch with any queries.