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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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I-1401 ivory restrictions might have little impact in Spokane

Ron Johnson, who owns the Antique Gallery on Monroe Street, still has a few ivory items in his shop, but they are no longer for sale following the passage of I-1401. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Ron Johnson, who owns the Antique Gallery on Monroe Street, still has a few ivory items in his shop, but they are no longer for sale following the passage of I-1401. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Up until last fall, the monthly sales at Owens Auction routinely featured jewelry, figurines and other items made of ivory that were part of estates the Spokane business was handling.

No more, auctioneer Jeff Owens said. They stopped because of federal restrictions, and a state law approved last week by voters makes it unlikely the auction house will ever handle ivory again.

“If you have to appraise a piece of ivory, you put zero on it,” Owens said. “It has no value.”

Owens and other business owners in Spokane familiar with antiques and jewelry had some bad news for Washington residents who might be thinking of unloading great-grandma’s ivory jewelry or that heirloom ivory chess set before new state restrictions from Initiative 1401 kick in. Antique stores and pawn shops likely won’t take ivory goods, and you might not even be able to list them on eBay. A private sale or gift to a family member may be your only option.

Until earlier this year, the Antique Gallery may have bought and sold a few ivory items in the course of normal business. Now, when people call to ask owner Ron Johnson about his interest in anything with ivory, he tells them not to even bother coming in.

“We really stopped dealing with (ivory) about six months ago,” Johnson said. “We don’t take it anymore.”

The few ivory figurines he has had for several years have been taken off the shelves. The only thing with ivory on display in the North Monroe shop is an 1885 organ with ivory keys.

That would pass muster under two exemptions in I-1401, which will soon add new state penalties on the sale of products from endangered animals, including elephants: The organ is more than 100 years old, and the ivory is less than 15 percent of the entire product.

Dodson’s Jewelers stopped handling ivory jewelry years ago, owner Penn Fix said. He said he never sees it in new designs and Dodson’s doesn’t buy it from estates to include in its antique jewelry offerings.

“Maybe we would if it was popular. It might have been more than 30 years ago, it certainly isn’t now,” he said. “In the Northwest, people are a lot more sensitive about things like that.”

Ivory has become a touchstone in the fight to save African elephants from extinction. Highly valued in China and some other Asian countries, that demand has led to increased poaching of the elephant herds and a sharp drop in their numbers.

Elephants are the first animals mentioned in a list of protected species in I-1401, and ivory from poached elephants was often mentioned by supporters. The initiative is passing with 70 percent approval, so there’s little doubt the state penalties on the sale of any products from those animals will become law in December after the election results are certified.

Even opponents of the measure had little hope they would keep it from passing. But John Regan, who owns the Centralia Square Antique Mall and was part of the Legal Ivory Rights Coalition Committee that opposed I-1401, argued extra restrictions on ivory sales in the United States aren’t going to save many elephants in Africa. He agreed with merchants in Spokane that there’s not much market for ivory outside of Asian-American communities and some Asian tourists.

“We do get customers from China. Ivory is in huge demand there and price has gone up to $2,000 a pound,” Regan said.

But in outlawing any new ivory jewelry or carvings – which already had some import and sale restrictions under federal law – I-1401 also puts state penalties on almost any product in which the ivory is more than 15 percent of the item, and can’t be proved to be at least 100 years old.

The 15 percent rule would knock out most all jewelry, from a bead necklace to the carved head on a pin or broach, Fix said.

It would allow for the sale of pianos or organs with ivory keys, although Kathi Young of Dan the Piano Man in Spokane Valley said ivory makes up no more than 3 percent of those instruments. But it hasn’t been used on piano keys since the 1940s, she added. Even for the most expensive grand pianos, the white keys are made of a special plastic which, like ivory, absorbs moisture from the player’s fingers so they don’t slip.

Proving the age of something that contains ivory can be difficult unless the owner has kept careful records. Sometimes a dealer can tell by the style of the carving, or the clasp, Fix said. Most times, though, it would require documentation.

There’s also the problem of telling elephant ivory from walrus ivory, which is not restricted and common in Northwest artifacts, or from other types of animal bones that were carved and commonly used for costume jewelry, household items and decorative inlays through the mid-1900s. Many dealers don’t have the expertise to tell them apart, Regan said.

“There’s some things I look at that I just don’t have any idea,” he said.

Some people also have items they think are ivory that turn out to be celluloid, Bakelite or an old type of plastic known as French ivory, Regan added.

The level of enforcement for the new state law is uncertain. The initiative gives the state Department of Fish and Wildlife the power to seize products from the listed endangered animals – which include rhinoceroses, lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs as well as elephants – but it provides no extra funding for the department except for any penalties from convictions. State officials said before the election they were struggling to have enough staff to enforce existing wildlife laws, and their officers had no real training in spotting products from the listed animals or the authority to search stores for those products.

Dealers contacted in Spokane said they didn’t know how the law would be enforced, but don’t want to take the chance of being among the first people to be charged under it. With federal restrictions tightening and other states also putting penalties on ivory, most sales “will probably go to the black market,” Owen said.

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