Owning Ivory – Part 1

For thousands of years, ivory collectibles have been in high demand due to their luster, graining and the many artistic forms it can take. For those who have antique ‘ivory’ items, determining whether or not it is actually ivory can be a concern.

The most common way to test an item to see if  it is real, is to heat the tip of a needle or pin until it is red hot. Put the red hot point on an inconspicuous spot. If the needle goes in more than a tiny pin prick, it is not ivory.

Note: While we present this method as the most simplistic way to test an item, we are not endorsing or recommending it be tried on any ivory item.

Once you’ve decided you own real ivory, you may be wondering about whether or not you can sell it. There are many laws regulating the buying and selling of ivory and the average collector may wonder if his items are legal or illegal.

While ivory is strictly regulated, chances are any items one may have in there home are legal to own. However, they may not be legal to sell across state lines or export. If you are considering selling any ivory, look for a reputable dealer who can advise you on the legal status concerning the items you want to sell.

You should note that  it will be your responsibility as owner to gather the historical documentation necessary to establish provenance.   This documentation or ‘paper trail’  may include import records, bills of sale or even a record of a previous appraisal that is dated.

When establishing provenance, the following are the most important to have:

  • Country of origin
  • Country of export
  • Year the ivory was imported
  • Specific port through which ivory entered the U.S.
  • Whether the ivory African or Asian (elephant)
  • Whether ivory is raw or worked
  • Age of  ivory object at time of import  into US

If looking to sell your ivory, there are a few other considerations – whether or not it is worked (in an art form) or raw (tusk, etc.) and if  its area of origin is Asian or African. We’ve given you a brief overview of the provenance time frame with its respective status.

Asian Ivory (Both worked and raw)

Imported before 1976 – Legal to own, but illegal to sell

Imported after 1976, at least 100 years old at time of import – Legal to own, sell interstate and export

Imported after 1976, less than 100 years old at time of import – Illegal

African Ivory (Worked)

Imported before 1989 – Legal to own, sell interstate and export

Imported after 1989, at least 100 years old at time of import – Legal to own, sell interstate and export

Imported after 1989, less than 100 years old at time of import – Illegal

African Ivory (Raw)

Imported before 1989 – Legal to own, sell interstate and export

Imported after 1989 – Illegal

Final thought, unless you  have plans to travel with or sell your ivory, it is probably not necessary for you to establish any of the above. However, if you do not wish to have your ivory items confiscated – many such pieces are not illegal only undocumented – then your better off to keep your items in your home and enjoy them there.

We have simplified the presentation of regulations associated with owning, selling and buying ivory here. For more detailed information visit the links below.

http://www.cites.org/ – Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)

http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/16/ch35.html – Endangered Species Act (U.S. Code: Title 16, Ch. 35)

Check back with us next time, when we’ll be discussing how to care for your ivory – everything from jewlery to piano keys!

 

72 comments to Owning Ivory – Part 1

  • Trudy Reusch

    My father brought back a carved ivory necklace from WWII. The necklace has a carved elephant with smaller carvings on each side — all strung together. It is in excellent condition and it has never been worn and my mother would like to know what it is worth and how to sell it. She has no idea where to find a respectable and reliable person to ask about this. Can you suggest someone? We live in the Midwest.

    • David

      Hello Trudy –

      Don’t know of anyone to recommend, and have not been able to locate a book on ivory values. Since your item is a piece of jewelry, you may be able to find a book at the bookstore or local library on antique, vintage or collectible jewelry that has a section on ivory pieces. Another option is to check the Completed auctions on Ebay to see what a comparable necklace sold for. Ivory has been one of the most difficult categories for us to find good information on. Re selling, the information contained in the blog post is the most current info we have. Check out the link for the ‘online auction’ – near the bottom of the post.

      David

  • Bernice

    We have ivory sent over from a soldier in ww2 they are finely carved different sized miniature camels and elephants 10_11 in all.is there a dealer in Phoenix?

    • David

      Bernice –

      Unfortunately, we know of no dealers in the Phoenix area. You can try calling some of the larger antique malls to see if they have a dealer – or know of one – that specializes in ivory.

      Best of luck !
      David

  • Bernie Massin

    I have a piece of fossilized ivory I got at a rummage sale. Can I sell it and where is the best place to do it?

  • Robyn

    By the way I contacted Heritage House and they said they don’t deal with Ivory any more?

    • David

      Thank you for the information – to find a buyer you’ll need to go to more than 1, in fact, I’d go to several. Finding someone ‘honest’ is the key. You may want to visit Round Top Antique Fair – coming up in March-Apr, 2015 to see if anyone there specializes in ivory.

  • lois

    I have a large collection on elephant ivory from Assam India back in the late 1959
    chess set,all type if figureens etc. where can I find out the worth of these’thanks
    Lois

    • David

      Lois – might try eBay to see what a comparable set is selling for. It’s difficult to assign a value based on condition, region of country and demand. David

  • Thank you for the great resource. I was wondering if you might be able to shed some light on what I believe is a fantastic piece. It is a complete elephant tusk, carved completely through, on both sides. We believe it is of the Qing Dynasty. I have made a website to show it to people in the hopes that I may learn more about it. If you have a moment, I’d love your look and any new information you might be able to share. Thank you!

    tusk.piclazzari.com 

  • mike

    looking for a reputable dealer of ivory in rhode island

    thank you

    mike

    • David

      Mike – Don’t have any contacts there, but check out local antique malls and talk to various dealers. You’re bound to pick up some good information of who can be trusted. David

  • Michelle

    My father bought quite a few pieces of ivory 3 days after the end of WWII while in Tokyo. I have a full chess set and about 20 additional pieces in perfect condition. I recently inherited this plus 30 pieces of Lalique crystal, among other things like trench art, etc… Any idea how I can sell these pieces in the Houston area?

    • David

      Michelle – Do some homework first. Go to some of the larger malls and price items comparable to yours, also a good starting point is to look on Ebay to see what an item is selling for. When you do this look for completed auctions so you see the final price. David

    • cynthia.rickard

      wondering if you sold your Lalique pieces?

  • mark

    my dad was in military and was stationed in Greenland where he lived with eskimos there. He went hunting with them and shot a walrus this was back in the 60s.
    He passed away and I have the walrus tusk now and some figurines that he got in
    the Phillipines when we lived there. How should I go about finding out what I can
    do with them or where should I turn

    • David

      Mark – Check local antique malls to see if these items are in demand and what they are selling for. Talk to dealers to see if they buy. Know what you want before you sell. David

  • Tang Van Lanh

    Dear Sir,

    I am Mr. Tang Van Lanh from Viet Nam in Southeast Asia
    I have a Champa’s antiques​​. The material is ivory. It is more than 200 years old. Finely carved, the diameter is 8cm, the weight is 400 gram. Origin: Champa people in Vietnam. Champa is a country that has been destroyed by the Vietnamese at 1832. I want sell it with the price proposed 200,000.00 USD

    Can you help me?

  • Jodi Grover

    I have a picture frame with a picture of great great grandfather I thought it was plastics but
    My 90 year old aunt said they didn’t make plastic then.. Examined frame it was marked ivory
    Is it worth anything

  • Nancy

    I found a small (3″ tall) ivory statue of an Asian man and his dog at an estate sale. It is well grained so I believe it is genuine ivory. It is marked Phnom Phen on the wood base. The person who passed away was a collector of antiques and this was in an old box full of items. I have no other information about it but another person who attended the sale said that HE used to carve ivory many years ago and thought the piece I found was from the turn of the last century. How might I value it and can I sell it?

    • David

      Nancy – try looking for similar items by doing a Google search (use the image search as well), selling is always an issue if you cannot provide proof of age. Try local antique shops/malls for dealers that deal in oriental items or ivory. Know what its value if first !! David

  • Charles Williams

    I guess that since my previous inquiries were posted some 7 months ago and are STILL “awaiting moderation” this webpage is toast?????
    Thanks for nothing………

    • David

      So sorry Charles, we’ve been dealing with a major illness for the past months – we’re back and hope you will continue to visit – David

  • Bryan Clausen

    I have antique ivory jewelry that was given to my grandmother by my mother while we were in Germany in the late 1960’s. It is still in the original box with company’s name address,telephone #,etc..
    I am sure you can guess that the company is impossible to contact and research has really gotten me nowhere. I know it is elephant ivory, company name is Jacob Blumenschein, 6121 Hembach/Odenwaid. Telefon 0 60 63-23 22.

    • David

      Bryan – not sure if you are looking for value? try contacting them online or search Ebay for information. Might be easier since you have so much data. David

  • Steve

    Require help with appraisal of two extraordinary ivory pieces.
    Each is 18 inches tall. Carvings are of king on one and queen on other.
    Could be African or Egyptian.

    • David

      Steve – We do not know of anyone that is knowledgeable in ivory – but try a large auction house in a large city. Ivory is one of the most difficult items to value and identify. David

  • Deborah

    I have inherited an ivory sewing chest tat I have little to no information on. I know it has been I my family over 60 years and passed down from grandma to mom to me. It is all ivory on the outside you open it up and tier is a cedar lid covering the contents with an envelope on it with a insert saying Marshall Field Company. The inside as compartments with ivory covers on them. There are ivory tread spools and thimbles. It is in good shape but some of the ivory is ungluing on the outside. I live in the Austin, Texas area….can anyone suggest a good appraiser I the area?

    • David

      Deborah – Try calling some of the large antique malls/stores to see if they know of anyone. And, then get another opinion. Always know the charge for an appraisal before you commit. David

  • Karen Peterson

    Hi David,
    I have a set of ivory piano keys from a 1950s upright piano. I’d like to sell them. How would I do that?
    Thanks for your suggestions.
    Regards,
    Karen

    • David

      Karen – Try contacting someone that restores antique pianos, check on Ebay to see if there is a demand there for them there. Something as specific as that will require a little work to find a buyer. David

  • stacey

    Hi I need a little help my father got some ivory from a friend from Zambia Africa around 1980 he has tusks and some figures he did not have pictures of them and I did not find any paperwork with them he passed away years ago I know there worth some money but how can I track down paperwork to make them legal to sell or is there a place in ct that can help me get the documents needed to sell them thank you

    • David

      Stacey – That sounds like it might be difficult. Look for pictures or correspondence. Contact a governmental agency to see what they will accept as documentation to sell an item such as yours. David

  • Joyce

    We have recently inherited African Carved Ivory (several pieces both small and large). I have one appraisal for some of the smaller pieces from 1975 when my mother in law was given her pieces, but nothing from the original owner which was her mother who got them while living in Liberia, Africa. I do have proof that they lived in Liberia in 1968 from an invitation they received to attend state a function at the consulate. How can we go about getting a value, and selling these items, or can we?

    • David

      Joyce, you should be able to sell them since you have documentation. The problem is always finding the value and someone to purchase them. Try local large antique shops, malls, etc. to see if they buy ivory. Know what you want beforehand tho. David

  • what kind of ivory would be oval 6 to 8 inches long but solid. its been carved out or hollow. open at both ends i have 1 cap that goes on end. its made of same stuff. it has a Chinese man and a fish with back ground carving. im sure its some kind of ivory and may be old. need help to know what it is. what it was used for and maybe how old it is. would like some info on it. would like to know where i can send photos of it

  • Carol

    I have a rare 42″L Chinese ivory sailing ship with figures, 19th century, which I would like to sell. It was purchased by my father in Asia in the early 1960s. I had it appraised a few years ago for $24,000. Is it possible to sell this piece within the U.S.?

    • David

      Carol – for something of this nature – I would recommend checking with a governmental agency to see exactly what the current regulations are. David

  • Amst

    As a collector from Europe, I am looking to purchase big pairs of uncarved tusks in the US.
    Is it legal to export such items, and if so, how to obtain an export license?

    • David

      Amst – Don’t know anything about this one – would recommend you check with a government agency that handles import/exports. David

  • I have an old hand carved chinese doctors doll made of Ivory I am guessing at the age but I would say over 100 years old I would like to sell it but can not find a site to sell it on can you help me out stuck in Oklahoma

    • David

      David – Sorry, but don’t know of any such sites, ivory is such a difficult item to deal with due to the many regulations. You may want to check with local antique shops/dealers to see if they might give you some good information. Always get more than one opinion – and don’t be in a hurry. If they tell you to do something ‘now’ – don’t. David

  • how can i sell ivory in asia or any were else. i have 16 sets of ivory, i leave in africa, but am worried how to transport it to asia or eupe, how can u help me, i need ur help and guidance, because am in need of money and i need to sell these sets. thanks

  • Julia

    I’ve just inherited an ivory bracelet from my grandmother. No idea of provenance. Looks old (whatever that means) and has a very aged-looking “made in India” sticker on the inside. At a guess, based purely on yellowing of that sticker and the font used, anywhere from 40s to 70s. Any idea how I should proceed?

  • cathy

    I have a ivory carved necklace that has aged in color and some blocks of ivory and a carved elephant statue. My father brought them from WW2 from India. Both my parents dead no paperwork on ivory at all. What can I do if I want to sell it? Thanks

    • David

      Hi Cathy – Before attempting to sell, make a list of the items, date acquired, and where. The regulations on selling ivory vary by country of origin. In my opinion, if I were in your situation, I’d do some looking at antique shops that carry ivory and talk to the dealers. Ask questions: where did you get this? how did you know it was legal? Re cost: a dealer will ‘typically’ pay 40-50% of the retail value. Next, I’d contact an auction house like Heritage Auction in Dallas (www.ha.com) to see if they can give me any information about selling my collection of ivory. They used to offer a free appraisal – so that might be a way to get an idea of what one of your items is worth. Finally, I’d review the government’s regs on selling ivory really well. You may find some answers at this US Government link.

      Hope this helps some – David

  • VONN

    I HAVE A PAIR OF REAL IVORY CHINESE MALE & FEMALE I HAVE HAD FOR OVER 20 YEARS. I WOULD LIKE TO SELL THEM. 16″ TALL AND VERY HEAVY HAND CARVED.

    • David

      Hello – Before selling, get together any provenance you might have on your figures – letters talking about them, pictures of them, sales receipts, etc. These are always helpful in determining age – and legality. Before selling you may want to check Heritage Auction (www.ha.com) to get an idea of value. They used to offer one free appraisal – although I’d get several opinions before taking any action towards selling. Ivory has a lot of regulations associated with buying/selling, so due diligence is a must. Good Luck! David

  • Edward Lilley

    What about Alaskan or Eskimo ivory? We have both white ivory and brown fossilized ivory that has been made into jewelery. We bought these in the 1960’s while living in Alaska.

    Ed LIlley

  • Stephanie

    Hi,

    I have two sets of ivory tusks as well as several small ivory statues that belonged to my father who passed away a few years ago. He acquired these in Nigeria when he lived and worked there in the early 1970’s. The first set of tusks is carved. The second set is from an African elephant he hunted. They are raw. My dad imported these when he moved back to the U.S. in the 1970s. These have been displayed in Texas in my parents’ home since then. Do Texas ivory laws prohibit selling out of state? I live in Florida and am planning a trip to help my mother sell the ivory. I wasn’t sure if I was limited to selling these in state. Thanks!

  • Dan

    I have an ivory tusk that my grandfather gave me. He has had it sence the late 1940’s.My grandfather passed on some years ago. Do you know what kind it might be and worth? Thanks

    • David

      Sorry, wish I could help – but you’ll need to take it to an ‘expert’ to have it examined in person. Depending on the type of ivory, origin, size and artistry, it could be quite valueale. Also, look for any provenance you might have on it – letters from your Grandfather talking about it, pictures of your Grandfather with it, sales receipts, etc. There are always helpful in determining age – and legality if you decide to sell it. Good luck!

  • Ed Lee

    I have a very old ivory tongue depressor.6 3/4″ in length.I would like to know if there is a value on this and would also like to see it go to a Doctors or Medical collection.Any ideas?

    • David

      Hello Ed –
      I’ve never seen an ivory toungue depressor, but would have to think that it would be quite unique and rare. As to value, haven’t a clue. But you can imagine such an item over the years would have been broken or discarded due to use, so the value would be there. Your item is interesting enough that I would contact the Smithsonian. This is the link to their contact page: http://www.si.edu/Contacts. Just copy and paste into your address bar.

      Would be interested to know how this turns out.

      David

  • Chandra Lamonte

    I have an ivory “jewelry box” that was carved out of an elephant tusk, and scrimshaw work done on the lid, back in the early 70’s. I don’t want this, and was wondering if it could be sold. Also, I have a few pieces of tusks that were made into pendants that I want to sell, if possible. What would be the best way to do this?

    Thank you,
    Chandra L

    • David

      The best way would be to get any provenance together that you may have on the items and then contact a ‘reputable’ dealer. If you are in a large city, call around to some of the larger antique malls to see if anyone specializes in ivory. Another option is to contact Heritage Auction (Dallas) via their website, http://www.ha.com – they may be able to offer help as well.

      Good Luck!
      David

  • Susan Olsen

    A great aunt of mine was one of the first western nurses to work in China in the early part of the 20th Century. She brought back some worked ivory pieces and they have been in the family ever since. I have no way to prove that provenance, however. My question is, what can I do with them? They have very little meaning to me or my family, and when my Mom goes, we are going to have to deal with dividing more inherited items than we can possibly handle. Are there experts that can determine the age or is a market for such items? If not, is it possible to donate them to a museum? I live in Seattle, and there are museums devoted to Asian art and heritage.

    • David

      Yes, there is a market for your ivory items or you could donate them as you said.
      However, you would want to know their value before doing so.
      Provenance can be established by pictures if you have any of your aunt with
      the items either in China or after she returned. These pictures might simply be a
      photograph where the item(s) is in the background of an old family photo.

      Another option, would be for you or someone in the family to write down what
      you’ve sent me, take photos of the items, and perhaps have it witnessed or notarized.

      There is an auction house – Heritage Auction – that not only offers free evaluations
      but also may be interested in selling your items should you
      decide to go that route. We have used them before and they are very good.

      You can get more information on Heritage from the link below:
      http://www.ha.com/c/index.zx

      – David

  • LINNIE RUSHING

    I HAVE THREE IVORY STATUES THAT WAS GIVEN TO ME BACK BEFORE 1970 BY MY GRANDMOTHER THE WERE BOUGHT ON A TRIP FROM CHINA BY MY AUNT. SHE GAVE THEM TO MY GRANDMOTHER AN MY GRANDMOTHER GAVE THEM TO ME. THERE ARE THREE OF THESE STATUES. I WAS WONDERING IF THEY CAN BE SOLD CAN U HELP.

    • David

      Before selling anything I would check with some one who had accurate information about selling guidelines. Heritage Auction sells a lot of high-end antiques, they may be able to help if you are looking to dispose of the items.

  • Jennifer

    Oops! These measurements are with the necklace clasp closed. 😉

  • David

    Jennifer – without the items being marked – and perhaps more or less hand-crafted, it would be difficult to assign value. If you can take the items to a local Gem & Jewelry Show, you may be able to find an expert there that can help you.

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