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Ivory has been used for piano keys, jewelry items, veneers, figurines, pool balls, cue sticks, door handles, buttons and a myriad of other items.

And, auctioneers somewhat frequently discuss what is legal and illegal concerning the selling of ivory … and like items.

Like items? In addition to elephant ivory: whale, walrus, mammoth and a variety of related scrimshaw items are usually included in this discussion.

The overriding laws which regulate ivory is promulgated by the:

CITES was formed in 1973, and is now known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES regulates control over international trade, and does not regulate any country’s internal commerce.

In 1975, CITES ruled to prevent the international trading of Asian elephant ivory; likewise for African elephant ivory in 1990. Such rulings are periodically reviewed, depending on current populations. Occasionally thus far, some stockpiled ivory which has been harvested pre-ban has been permitted on the international market.

Here are the general laws for auctioneers in the United States today regarding Asian and African ivory, including references from the African Elephant Conservation Act of 1989:

    Asian elephant ivory:

    1. Imported before 1976 is legal to own, but not legal to sell.
    2. Imported after 1976 and at least 100 years old at the time of importation is legal to own, sell and export.
    3. Imported after 1976 and less than 100 years old at the time of importation is illegal.

    African elephant ivory:

    1. Imported before 1989, or imported after 1989 and at least 100 years old at the time of importation, is legal to own, sell and export.
    2. Imported after 1989 and less than 100 years old at the time of importation is illegal.

Slightly different rules apply to raw African elephant ivory contrasted with “worked” ivory. Raw African elephant ivory imported after 1989, regardless of age, is illegal.

Further, within the United States, overall wildlife product commerce is regulated at both the federal and state level. Federal regulations include:

Currently, at the federal level:

  1. The importation of sperm whale teeth for commercial purposes is prohibited, as of 1973.
  2. A special federal permit is required to sell “registered” sperm whale teeth across state lines.
  3. No further sperm whale teeth are being registered, and therefore those teeth can only be sold to a buyer within the same state.
  4. Antique ivory whales teeth (1873 and prior) can be sold interstate.
  5. Ancient (extinct) mammoth or mastodon animal ivory can be sold without restriction.
  6. Purchasing, finding or possessing marine mammal skins, muktuk, baleen, and bones can be researched here: http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/protectedresources/buying.htm and there are particular laws germane to Alaskan natives.

In addition, each state has a department dealing with fish, wildlife and/or game, charged with regulating wildlife product commerce. Before any such property is sold at auction, those officials in the applicable state(s) should be checked for additional laws.

However, possibly the more important issue is … does the item’s value (and associated commission) justify the research and risk involved for an auctioneer? For instance, one could argue that a $100-$125 ivory statue that may (or may not) be legal to sell would be best to avoid.

And further, even if the item is more valuable, how does an auctioneer determine if the ivory is Asian or African? When was it imported? Is the item 98 years old, or 103 years old? When ivory items reach important values, how does an auctioneer reasonably proceed with the auction?


Paperwork regarding the item including prior appraisals and/or bills of sale indicating country of origin, identification as Asian or African ivory, raw or worked, age, and year of importation can all help to prove to any interested authority that the item is legal to sell at auction, and to whom (and to where) the item can be sold.

Ivory has been highly marketable for thousands of years. Only recently has demand waned to some degree. Yet for auctioneers, knowing what is legal to sell, particularly if the item is of significant value, is important. With various international, federal and state resources available for research, prudent and informed decisions can be made about marketability.

Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, CAI, AARE has been an auctioneer and certified appraiser for over 30 years. His company’s auctions are located at: Mike Brandly, Auctioneer, Keller Williams Auctions and Goodwill Columbus Car Auction. His Facebook page is: www.facebook.com/mbauctioneer. He serves as Adjunct Faculty at Columbus State Community College and is Executive Director of The Ohio Auction School.