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Popular Science: A deep look into elephant teeth and the practices of antique traders

Ivory has been traded since prehistoric times, until such type of commercial activity had to be completely prohibited more than thirty years ago, based on an international convention, in order not to completely decimate the remaining elephants. However, the trade ban is not complete. For example, the EU still permits trade with antiques made from animals that were killed more than 50 years before the elephants, like many other species, started to be protected in the EU from excessive international trade. It is argued that killing animals “then” does not endanger the current populations. However, is everything declared as antique really old? Researchers from the Center for Forensic Studies of the Faculty of Science at Charles University and the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic analysed ivory artefacts seized by the Czech Environmental Inspectorate, verified their age as reported by the trader, and arrived at surprising conclusions.

Ivory has always been a prestigious article, a symbol of wealth and high social status, appreciated in the production of art or religious objects, furniture, decorations, jewellery, or musical instruments. The massive demand for ivory in the 19th and 20th centuries, when elephants were hunted only for their incisor teeth – tusks, caused a drastic drop in the number of elephants of all three species (two African and one Asian) to a level far below 20% of the original state. Since 1989, international trade in ivory has been banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which is also respected by EU member states, including the Czech Republic. One of the few exceptions to this ban is the antiquity trade – i.e., with processed ivory originating from animals killed before 1947.

Item, dated 1991. Photo: Celní správa ČR. 

Traded antique ivory must be accompanied by documents indicating its origin and age. Many real or fictional stories are generally known about cases where a painting, a piece of furniture, or another artefact was declared older than it actually was. Traders then often managed to deceive even the best experts and sell the counterfeit for a huge amount. It can therefore be assumed that similar cases exist with ivory, where the motivation for artificial “ageing” is an attempt to circumvent the sales ban.

The illegal trade in wildlife is often conducted by organised crime groups. In essence, it is a highly profitable market where several billion dollars flow every year, and the practices used are even comparable to those of drug traffickers or terrorist organisations.

Item from 1976. Photo: Celní správa ČR. 

The highest demand for ivory is currently in China, Thailand, and Japan, while in the Czech Republic it has always been low. However, the share of illegal trade is not exactly identified.

The team analysed 25 selected statuettes and decorated tusks from ivory of African elephants from a total of 77 items (with a total weight of 47 kg!) seized in 2016 at the house of an antiquity trader as part of an operation targeting online illegal ivory trade. The individual concerned operated mainly on Czech auction websites and provided a statement of an expert in the field of antiques to a number of artefacts (14 out of 25 dated statuettes), namely that the objects date from the turn of the 19th century.

Item from 1976. Photo: Celní správa ČR. 

To verify the declared age of the ivory statuettes, these statements were compared with the results of the radiocarbon dating method performed at the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the AS CR. Radiocarbon dating enables the determination of the age of objects based on the decrease in the activity of the radioactive 14C carbon isotope. As a result of nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s, the amount of 14C in modern objects increased significantly, which makes it possible to determine their age with accuracy, even in the order of units of years.

Item from 2004. Photo: Celní správa ČR. 

Whereas the invited expert concluded that 14 of the 25 items he had evaluated were unambiguously antique, radiocarbon dating indicated with high certainty that 17 of the 25 items were definitely not antique; for the remaining samples, the method could not establish whether they were antique or not. The radiocarbon dating technique revealed that the expert was wrong in 12 out of the 14 cases.

The percentage of falsely “antique” artefacts is striking, given that ivory is not the most common item in the antique trade in the Czech Republic and the ivory trade has no significant importance in the Czech religion, history, or superstition.

The authors therefore recommend that the evaluation of the age of ivory objects should be based not only on expert judgment, but also on the more accurate and affordable radiocarbon dating method.

Discussions on this topic are still ongoing. Some authorities are proposing a total ban on the ivory trade (whether antique or not), which – of course – is not enthusiastically welcomed by some antique traders and experts.

Kufnerová, J., Pachnerová Brabcová, K., Suchý, V. et al. Are ivory antiques actually antique? Crime Law Soc Change (2021)

Darina Koubínová

Published: Sep 01, 2021 03:10 PM

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