Is It Legal To Sell Ivory at Estate Sales or Auctions?

There are thousands of estate sales held across the U.S. every week, and just as many estate auctions.  Finding decorative estate ivory carvings is very common during the staging process, but can it be sold?  This is a question that’s often asked by new liquidators to the industry, and an important question to answer because there is a lot of confusion when it comes to this topic.

Common Estate Ivory Items

Generally, estate sales include the entire contents of a home.  It’s not uncommon to see various ivory collections.  From figurines to carvings, mini netsuke collections, pianos and violins that have ivory components, and much more.

To get an idea of how common it is, we asked our private Facebook group of professional estate liquidators and auctioneers to take a quick poll.

The majority agreed that it is very common to see ivory when they are staging an estate sale.

Almost all companies know there’s an ivory trade ban, yet a quick online search will lead to various ivory carvings listed for sale, this tends to cause a bit of confusion leaving many wondering whether to sell, destroy, or donate the ivory items they find.

The United States Laws on Ivory Trade

A near total ban on the trade of African and Asian elephant ivory went into effect in the United States on July 6, 2016.  But there are a few exceptions.

When the ban was first announced, it left antique dealers, and auction houses in a tough spot!  Many of them do not have proof of age to meet the requirements, and certified dating tests are costly, making it virtually impossible to liquidate all the ivory items they had on their shelves.

Since the 2016 law went into effect, tighter regulations at the state and federal level have encouraged many dealers, including estate sale companies to get out of the ivory trade business altogether.

We contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to get clarification and a quick summary of what’s what on the matter.

The compliance officer we spoke with did not want us to publish his/her name, but provided us with a lot of information that will answer many of the questions everyone has as an estate liquidator or auctioneer.

There are many additional details and information relating to ivory posted on their website, but in this article, we wanted to highlight the common situations faced by estate sale professionals, how to deal with estate sale ivory, and raise a red flag for those starting a new estate sale business.

About Owning Ivory

It’s not illegal to already own ivory.  Personal possession is OK, because a family heirloom can pass down within the family. This also applies if you have a vintage musical instrument that has ivory pieces or components.

These items were made years ago, passed down in the family and aren’t a threat or a danger to today’s elephants.

Can Estate Ivory Items Be Sold Within State Lines?

If it’s allowed in your state, maybe, but you’ll also have to meet federal requirements.  The safe answer is probably no!  That’s about as clear as it can get.

There are a few things you must do first to make sure you are protected and properly abiding by the law at the federal, state, and local levels.

Some states completely prohibit the sale of ivory, so depending on where you live, you may not even be able to sell it at all.

Contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife by State to check the requirements.  As of the time of this writing, New York, New Jersey, Washington State, California and Hawaii for example PROHIBIT the sale of ivory completely.  If you’re in those states, you’ve got your answer.

If your state does allow the sale of ivory, you must now make sure you abide by the federal law and be ready to produce documents required to justify the sale within your state if asked.

Required Proof for Ivory Sale

Certificates, dated photos, letters or documents proving that the item was lawfully imported prior to January 18, 1990 if it’s African Ivory, and July 1, 1975 for Asian Ivory.  These documents must also be passed on to the buyer of the item.

Can Ivory at Estate Sales Be Sold Across State Lines?

The sale of ivory items across state lines is always prohibited, unless the items sold qualify as an ESA antiques exemption, or meet the “de minimis” criteria.  The seller must produce documents as proof to meet this exemption:

What Qualifies As an ESA Antiques Exemption?

  • The ivory is 100 years or older
  • The ivory is composed in whole or in part of an ESA-listed species;
  • The ivory has not been repaired or modified with any such species after December 27, 1973; and
  • The ivory is being or was imported through an endangered species “antique port*”

*U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) designated 13 ports for the entry of antiques made of ESA-listed species on September 22, 1982 (19 C.F.R. 12.26). The following ports are authorized: Boston, Massachusetts; New York, New York; Baltimore, Maryland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Miami, Florida; San Juan, Puerto Rico; New Orleans, Louisiana; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; San Francisco, California; Anchorage, Alaska, Honolulu, Hawaii; and Chicago, Illinois.

What Is the De Minimis Exemption?

The de minimis exemption only applies to African elephant ivory, not Asian elephant ivory.  It is relating to items that contain a small (de minimis) amount of African elephant ivory.

Items that generally qualify under this exemption are musical instruments that have ivory components.

In order to quality for this is exemption, the item being sold must also be:

  • Already located in the United States and was imported prior to January 18, 1990 or under a (CITES) pre-convention certification with no limitation on its commercial use.  CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
  • This certification must be available and produced if asked.  Also provided to the buyer after the sale.
  • If the item is outside of the U.S. proof that the ivory was removed from the wild before February 26, of 1976 is required!
  • It cannot be raw ivory, this means it’s a component of a large manufactured or handmade item such as a violin or piano.
  • The Ivory doesn’t account for more than 50% of the value of the item.
  • The amount of ivory in the item being sold is less than 200 grams and was made before July 6, 2016.
  • It is important to note that a 200 grams or less African ivory netsuke DOES NOT APPLY because it is made 100% of ivory.  The de minimis exemption applies to items not made of ivory as a whole, but rather manufactured items such as furniture or musical instruments that have components of ivory.

Interstate sale is always prohibited for hunted trophies that contain ivory.

If you are allowed to sell ivory in your state, or meet the exemption requirements for interstate sales, you do not need a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to sell.

However, if you are offering ivory for sale that does qualify, be ready to produce all the documents required.

As you can see, these requirements are virtually impossible to comply with if you’re an estate sale liquidator.

Often times, when the estate sale is held, paperwork is scattered, and little to no information can be found to prove the above, making it difficult to protect yourself as an estate sale company if ever questioned by authorities about having ivory at estate sales for potential buyers.  Is it even worth it?

Estate Sale Ivory Items

African Ivory vs Asian Ivory

Yes, there is a difference!  The African Ivory has always been more preferred among collectors.

Almost all older ivory items of higher quality are made out of African ivory.  Many items that were imported from India also originated in Africa but entered the U.S. as Asian Ivory.  How can an estate liquidator tell the difference between the two?

The need to differentiate between the two isn’t so important unless you are going to sell it.  So, the first thing to determine is whether your state allows it, and if they do, are all the documents required by federal regulations available? If not, it’s a moot point to try and figure it out.

For sake of information, DNA testing is possibly the best method to tell the difference between African and Asian ivory.  But, by just looking at it, the African ivory doesn’t usually have the pinkish tint that’s found in Asian ivory.  The grain marks in Asian ivory also have sharper peaks, and they zig-zag a bit more.

Selling Estate Sale Ivory Items Online

The same rules apply plus some.  Online platforms have additional policies one must abide by that go above and beyond federal, state, and local regulations.

Ebay completely prohibits the sale of ivory on their platform.  List something with the words ivory and watch it disappear within minutes.

Sure, many still try to sell ivory items without using the words in the title, but soon enough the listing is flagged and taken down quickly.  A few violations on Ebay and your account is suspended for good.  Is it worth it?

Live Auctioneers is one of the few online platforms where you still see ivory items listed, however, auctioneers using the platform to sell the items sign an agreement that they must not offer for sale through the platform any product of an animal species that is protected as endangered, or threatened, under applicable, national, or local laws.

One must assume that the auction-houses using the service must have documentation certifying the item being sold to meet requirements.

They are putting themselves at risk if they don’t, but the online auction platform protects itself with its seller agreement.

What Can I Do With Estate Sale Ivory Items?

Your best bet is to never include it in a sale, and ask the client to keep it.  It is not prohibited to own.  You can also suggest that they donate it, if allowed within the State.  The federal wildlife laws and regulations DO NOT prohibit donating or gifting an ivory item.

If your client decides to donate or gift the items, you may want to suggest they also include any and all documentations or records that show chain of ownership and origin of the item being donated or gifted.

That gift or donation must be made clear and cannot be exchanged for a service or product in return, otherwise it will be considered trade and must abide by the federal, state, and local regulations.

Remember, even if the federal law doesn’t prohibit the gifting or donating of ivory items, local and state laws might!  Make sure and check with your local state on their particular requirements relating to donating or gifting of ivory items.

In summary, the new rule prohibits the sale of ivory unless it’s for scientific research, part of an antique that’s over 100 years old, or used in a musical instrument that was manufactured prior to 1975.

It’s best to educate yourself on the regulations in your respective local area, but many companies would rather just stay away all together, let the client know they cannot sell ivory, and leave it to the client to decide what to do.

Penalties for Illegally Selling Ivory Items

Like anything else, violating the law can have consequences.  Hefty fines including prison are in the forecast for anyone caught selling endangered species including ivory items.

The law is enforced by undercover investigators that frequent auction houses and places they believe have access or trade ivory.

The New York Times recently covered a story in 2016 where antique dealers were charged with the illegal sales of ivory priced at 4.5 million dollars.

The estate sale industry is not currently regulated by a governing body.  However, veteran estate sale professionals understand the risks involved and tend to stay away from items prohibited for sale by federal, state, and/or local government.

This article is merely focused on the sale of ivory.  During the course of estate sales, there are many other items you’ll run into such as alcohol, firearms, safety regulation issues for car seats, cribs, etc… that you must also consider and educate yourself, and your staff about.

If you’re new to the estate sale industry, you must take the time, and understand all the laws and regulations relating to the resale of items.

Each home is different, the contents inside each home will also vary, knowing and following the rules can save you from liability, hefty fines, including jail time.

When in doubt or you have found yourself in a gray area, don’t sell the item.  In this day and age when everyone is watching everyone, exercise caution by first doing your due diligence, then making an educated decision. Said Julie Hall with ASEL, American Society of Estate Liquidators.

Informing the Estate Sale Client

Ivory owners are quite educated on the current laws relating to their collections, unfortunately many estate sale clients aren’t the actual collectors themselves but may be family members when you’re hired to host an estate sale.

It’s best to let them know up front about your policy and the current laws.

One thing most experienced estate sale professionals understand is that a well-informed client will have a big impact on the final outcome and satisfaction of that client.

Your estate sale contract is a written confirmation of all the verbal agreements you make.  You may want to include your policy statement on every contract you issue.

Julie Hall also said “ASEL sometimes receives complaints on estate liquidators,  one posted a leopard coat or ivory piece for sale.  This shows that the public is watching.  Good news is, we investigated and it was a faux coat and plastic figurine.  Best to educate the client on what you do know and not have a connection to it.”

We asked Hall, “There is so much ivory collected already, many of the clients think they are valuable, do you think the laws will eventually change?”

Julie Hall replied, “The ivory laws will most likely change again.  First there was a ban on ivory and now they are attempting to lift it.  Until we have more specifics on ivory and whether or not it can be sold, I highly recommend distancing yourself from it.”

Whether you choose to deal with each estate sale on a case by case basis or create an overall company policy that’s a default statement in your estate sale contract, it is your choice.

As a professional, liability in the estate sale industry is something to be concerned with, some liabilities can and will be handled by your insurance company but liabilities that involve government regulations are strictly your responsibility and must be avoided all together.

Begin by joining our online forum for estate sale professionals and auctioneers founded by EstateSales.org.

Thousands of members discuss, ask, and answer questions relating to this topic and many other topics that will help you grow your estate sale business and avoid situations that others may have experienced.

Our goal at EstateSales.org is to provide the industry with reference information that will educate new businesses, provide professional tips to existing ones and open the communication lines between the industry professionals.

If you’ve never come across an estate sale that had ivory, you’re in luck, but you may sooner or later.  If you’ve come across an ivory collector’s estate, we’d love to hear from you and find out how you handled the situation.

Leave us your comments below.  After reading this article, will you be adding a statement to your estate sale contract that will make it clear, you do not sell prohibited items by federal, state, and local government?