A Love of Ivory Endangered by Excessive Anti-Poaching Laws

February 25, 2016 Updated: April 28, 2016

Bob Weisblut owned a company specializing in burglar alarms and closed-circuit surveillance. Serendipity stirred his interest in ivory.

“I went to an auction in 1995. It was of government-confiscated goods. Most of it was pimp jewelry,” Weisblut said during an interview at his home in Ocean Ridge, Florida. “They put up the first carved ivory that I’d ever seen. It was of a Chinese woman holding a bouquet of flowers. I fell in love with it.”

Weisblut is a co-founder of the International Ivory Society (IIS) and one the world’s leading authorities on ivory.

An ivory holy water bucket, ca. 1830, in Bob Weisblut's collection. (John Christopher Fine)
An ivory holy water bucket, ca. 1830, in Bob Weisblut’s collection. (John Christopher Fine)

His collection is currently at 150 pieces, many among the finest examples of skilled carving to be found anywhere. He has a curious holy water bucket, estimated to be some 200 years old, depicting some saints not recognized by the Catholic Church. He has a Japanese carving of a geisha holding a parasol.

“The Japanese got into ivory carving in the 1880s when Admiral [Matthew C.] Perry got them to trade with the West. They had no ivory on the Japanese islands and no tradition of ivory carving,” Weisblut explained. “They were free to carve what they valued, so they carved fishermen, woodcutters.”

But with ivory poaching now a hot topic, and the history of ivory art not making headlines, collectors like Weisblut could find their love ostracized and even outlawed.

“Instead of sending drones, night vision equipment, or money to pay for park rangers, the federal government decided to stop the sale of all ivory, whether elephant or not, whether antique or new, hoping it will prevent poaching,” he said.

Controversial state and federal regulations get complicated when one considers that almost every family owns some form of ivory—whether a piano, guitar, flute, violin bow, pool balls, chess sets, jewelry, knife handles, gun grips, or bagpipes.

“To tell everybody in the U.S. they are going to be a felon if they sell their heirloom chafing dish with ivory on it, I don’t see how that will save elephants,” he declared. He said proposed federal legislation was written so that ivory owners are guilty until proven innocent. Their ivory could be seized, and only hiring a lawyer and taking it to court could get it back.

Orchestras have canceled performances in the United States because some of their instruments were made with ivory.

The federal government has made provisions for antiques and instruments, as is stated on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website: “Based on consultation with musicians, exhibitors, and others involved in the movement of specimens containing elephant ivory, we revised Director’s Order 210 … so that ivory as part of a musical instrument, a traveling exhibition, or as part of a household move or inheritance, that had been bought or sold prior to Feb. 25, 2014—the date that the Director’s Order was issued—could be imported or exported under the exception.”

A Japanese ivory carving of a Geisha with a parasol in Bob Weisblut's collection. (John Christopher Fine)
A Japanese ivory carving of a geisha with a parasol in Bob Weisblut’s collection. (John Christopher Fine)

But the definitions of what is permitted or not remain complex, and state proposals such as one rejected in New Jersey—that owning anything ivory would be a felony offense—continue to cause worry among ivory lovers.

Weisblut spreads his love of ivory far and wide. He has given all-day seminars at schools, museums, and institutes. “We even spoke at the International Snuff Bottle Society in the Washington Watergate complex,” he said. It was all volunteer work.

“This rare, white, easily carved substance has always been attractive to humans,” he said. “The oldest ivory pieces were jewelry made by Neanderthal man.” Ivory was found in King Tut’s tomb. The 43-foot-tall statue of Zeus carved by the Greek sculptor Phidias in 435 B.C. was inlaid with ivory.

The majority of ivory comes from elephants, but some has come from walrus tusks or hippopotamus teeth, Weisblut explained.

I do not know of a single collector that wouldn’t want to see the end of elephant poaching.
— Bob Weisblut, c0-founder, International Ivory Society

“I do not know of a single collector that wouldn’t want to see the end of elephant poaching,” he said. But, he hopes he can legally keep the treasures in his glass-fronted cabinet.

During the interview, he pointed out a wrecking crane smashing down an entire wall of a beachside apartment building he used to own. He sold it in 2014, and the new owner is razing it. “There goes $40,000 worth of windows,” he said.

Perhaps, like Bob Weisblut’s oceanfront apartments—a landmark in Ocean Ridge for many years—collectors of antique ivory will likewise be relegated to the wrecker’s ball. If so, the tradition of this amazing art form will perish without saving a single elephant.

John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist with two doctoral degrees, and has authored 24 books, including award-winning books dealing with ocean pollution. He is a liaison officer of the United Nations Environment Program and the Confederation Mondiale for ocean matters. He is a member of the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences in honor of his books in the field of education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.