The Market and Valuation of Ivory Objects

In the areas of Asian and African art, objects made from elephant ivory are quite commonplace, in particular, Japanese okimono (sculptures), and netsuke (a small carved ornament/toggle), and human figures from China, and animals from Africa.

  Ivory is a challenging area to value for two reasons: First, it is difficult to date; and second, because there are many types of ivory, not just elephant ivory which is the focus of recent strict regulations.

Various types of ivories. Credit: USFWS.

After the issuing of new rulings on the ivory trade by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which took effect June 6, 2016, many questions have been raised about an owner’s ability to sell ivory objects both locally and internationally. (See the post “New Rulings on Ivory Trade Affecting Appraisers, Antique Dealers, Collectors, Museums”.) The goal of the almost complete ban on trading elephant ivory is to ensure the protection of African elephants – a most worthy goal which no reasonable person would oppose. However, it has caused confusion and affected the sale prices for ivory objects.

In Canada, our tendency is typically to follow the lead of the U.S.  If we take a quick look at Canadian auction houses, we will notice that ivory continues to be sold. It is important to note that ivory continues to be sold with the understanding that elephant ivory, in most circumstances, cannot be exported from Canada unless certain criteria are met and a CITES (The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) permit is acquired. One of the criteria that would need to be proven is that the ivory object is a minimum of 100 years old (the basic definition of an antique).  This burden of proof regarding the age of the ivory would be hard to meet. In fact, the situation is often most easily simplified by saying that no ivory can be exported from Canada.  

What are the challenges that arise in identifying the age and type of ivory? 

Ivory can be potentially dated from the style of the carving, the patina of the material, as well as observations on condition, including colour changes and cracking. There are also many types of ivory in addition to African elephant ivory. Composite (plastic) used in carvings can rather convincingly pass as ivory, as well as types of animal bone (although it can often be identified by the black flecks in it of the natural pores). Elephant ivory has a very distinctive cross-hatching pattern. There are also examples of marine ivory, such as walrus and narwhal (used mostly in the legal Inuit trade), and thus, it is not necessarily a straightforward process. The cross-hatching (or Schreger lines in dentistry), appear in this image of elephant ivory from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Introduction to the Ivory Identification Guide:

Elephant Ivory Identification. Credit: USFWS.

With regard to how restrictions impact value, a useful article from The Star, entitled “125,000 people sign petition demanding Canada ban trade in elephant ivory,” dated March 18, 2018, is one of the most current sources for information. It notes that since China, “which used to be the world’s biggest market for ivory,” announced in 2015 that it would ban all domestic ivory sales by 2017, “the price of ivory started falling, from an estimated $2,100 a kilogram before to less than $500 a kilogram now.” Each object made from elephant ivory, if it were to be donated to a museum or sold within Canada, would have to be valued individually according to its provenance, age, condition, size, composition/subject matter, and whether it is solid or hollow. There is no easy general rule to estimate value. This is what makes the area of appraising these items so tricky.  

What can be done with ivory in Canada?

Ivory objects brought into Canada prior to 1989 can still be sold within Canada, but cannot be transported out of the country. The market within Canada for ivory objects is unpredictable and depends on specific local factors of collectors’ interests and comfort levels of owning objects made from an endangered species.

As each ivory object needs independent identification and valuation, click here to search our list of independent qualified appraisers with the specialty knowledge relating to your object. 

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(4) Comments
  1. I have several small ivory sculptures that have been in my family for years, belonging to my grandparents and then my parents, who passed them onto me. Unfortunately, I have no way of proving their age. Is there still a way to sell them in Canada? I live in Vancouver.
    Thank you,
    Leslie

    1. Hello Leslie, Thank you for contacting the Canadian Chapter of the International Society of Appraisers. Yes, you can sell your objects within Canada but they cannot be shipped outside of the country without all the proper paperwork. Recommend finding a buyer within Canada.

  2. I have an ivory artifact that has already been appraised. How do I go about finding a buyer in Canada?

    1. Hello Kunal, Thank you for contacting the Canadian Chapter of the International Society of Appraisers. Ivory objects brought into Canada prior to 1989 can still be sold within Canada, but cannot be transported out of the country. The market within Canada for ivory objects is unpredictable and depends on specific local factors of collectors’ interests and comfort levels of owning objects made from an endangered species. To sell your object, contact auction houses or dealers.

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