The federal government just released its new guidelines vis-à-vis the sale of items made from elephant ivory, and, well, things are only slightly better than they were a few months ago for those of us in the business of re-selling items. (And yes, that includes antiques dealers, estate liquidators, auctioneers, etc.)

We’ve all been in one state of confusion or another since the spring of 2014 in regard to this matter, and the clarification we just received from Washington was long overdue.

The strict new Federal guidelines for establishing provenance and proof of ivory items over a century old are now so precise and so potentially fraught with legal danger that it will simply not be feasible for us to sell almost any item made primarily of elephant ivory. (Federally recognized provenance shall include but not be limited to bills of lading, photographs of the pieces in the period in which they were imported, sales receipts of the period, and more. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It now takes the proverbial Act of Congress to legally sell elephant ivory in these United States.)

Appraisal reports (not necessarily USPAP-compliant ones, mind you) by qualified appraisers may also be considered by the powers that be, but the requirements for such reports are definitively onerous, and likely not feasible for the scope of the comparably small amounts of elephant ivory we encounter in an average estate.

Furthermore, it’s a given that most of the elephant ivory that we encounter in an average Oklahoma City metro area estate is, well, mid-20th century in origin. (There are some notable exceptions, granted. We recently encountered a marvelous Chinese Export painting on ivory veneer ca. 1820, and many Japanese netsukes from the late Meiji Period. Again, though, the burden of proof falls upon the estate and the liquidator, and we have to think about feasibility. Furthermore, we’ve decided that we wouldn’t look good in orange.)

Consequently, we’ve decided to avoid any and all legal issues by continuing our already standing rule of selling no elephant ivory at our estate sales.

All of the major auction houses (e.g., Bonhams, Christies, Sothebys, Heritage, etc.) have been abiding by this moratorium of all non-vetted ivories since 2014, and even the smaller auction houses (e.g., Susanins, Quinn’s, DuMouchelle’s, St. Charles, etc.) have also been operating in this way for several years now.

In fact, it was Matthew “Matt” Quinn of Quinn’s Auction in D.C. who led the round table forums (at an ISA conference we attended in 2014) on the topic of changing (but still then unclear) Federal guidelines in the spring of 2014.

We returned over twenty thousand dollars’ worth of elephant ivory to the trustee before we conducted the Edward Walsh sale in Nichols Hills back in the summer of 2014, and well over forty thousand dollars’ worth of elephant ivory was returned to the co-trustees and one other heir before we conducted the late Barbara Sullivant’s sale in The Village in February 2016.

The de minimis rule as established by the Feds provides some exception, and so don’t expect us to freak out over the occasional Steinway with ivory veneer keys, chryselephantine figures, nor those small pieces of the 18th and 19th centuries that weigh  less than two hundred grams (e.g., Georgian teapots with ivory spacers, etc.) as constituent parts.

Naturally, we’ll still sell pieces made of mammoth ivory, legally obtained walrus ivory, and common bone as we encounter them in the estates we liquidate.

As with migratory bird feathers, all endangered species, certain types of game trophies, automatic weapons, etc., well, our hands are tied. (And well they should be given the current spate of both rampant poaching and rapidly disappearing species and ecosystems.)

Don’t worry — it’s still quite legal to own the pieces you currently possess so long as they didn’t enter this country illegally. (You just can’t sell most of them without going through a long process of vetting.)

You can own them; you can leave them to your heirs. That said, you can’t donate them and receive tax write-offs, as said pieces will (unless correctly vetted and appraised) possess no market value in these United States of America.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions you may have in regard to this matter.

Thanks for taking the time to read this blog entry. We welcome your feedback.

Best regards,
Matt McNeil, ISA CAPP


  1. Matt McNeil on June 19, 2016 at 6:40 am
  2. Carol Matesic on July 17, 2016 at 11:54 am

    Very well written Matt. I agree and concur with your policies.

  3. J Carr Hall on July 18, 2016 at 1:05 am

    Here’s what I think: I think that was the most literate, articulate, well-written blog I have ever read. How refreshing!

    • Matt McNeil on July 18, 2016 at 6:57 am

      Why, thank you — you just made me blush!

      See you at the next sale!

      Best regards,

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