Carlton Hobbs: Buying and Selling Ivory Antiques

Ivory artwork and ornamental objects are highly prized for their beauty and craftsmanship, but collectors should be aware that several regulations at the state, national, and international level govern the sale and transport of ivory. Below is an overview of the most pertinent concerns for buyers and sellers of ivory pieces. To truly determine the status of an individual piece, however, it is necessary to conduct thorough research and acquire historical documentation.


The majority of ivory pieces are made from the tusks of the two species of elephant: the African elephant and the Asian elephant. Different regulations govern items made from these species. Habitat loss and the unchecked ivory trade up until the mid-1900s century resulted in the African elephant’s near-extinction, but populations have recovered somewhat, and the species is now considered vulnerable instead of endangered. The Asian elephant, however, remains endangered.

Raw vs. carved ivory

Rules governing the sale of African ivory typically make a distinction between raw and “worked,” or carved, ivory. Raw African ivory imported before 1989 is legal to sell between states and export; raw pieces imported after that year are illegal. Carved African ivory is subject to more complex rules and regulations.

Year of import and age at the time of import

Asian ivory (both raw and carved) imported prior to 1976 is illegal to sell, while Asian ivory imported after this date and at least 100 years old is legal to export and sell between states.

For carved African ivory, 1989 is the key date – any carved pieces imported before 1989, as well as those more than a century old that were imported after 1989, are legal to sell interstate and export. Carved African ivory pieces that are less than 100 years old and imported after 1989 are illegal to sell.

In all instances and for both import and export, a CITIES certificate needs to be applied for indicating the species, provenance and transport history of any ivory piece.

About Carlton Hobbs: The owner of Carlton Hobbs Antiques, Mr. Hobbs is a prominent antiques dealer based in New York City. He also operates a gallery in London.


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