Manhattan Antiques Shop Caught With $4.5 Million in Elephant Ivory

The ivory bust is the largest in New York state history.
(Photo: Morkel Erasmus/Getty Images)
Sep 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Manhattan-based Metropolitan Fine Arts and Antiques is famous for its collection of 20th century French glassware, and now it is infamous for its role in the largest seizure of illegal elephant ivory in New York state history.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation indicted the storeowners and a salesperson on Sept. 22 for selling and offering for sale illegal elephant ivory, at a total price of more than $4.5 million.

The three individuals are being charged with two counts of illegal commercialization of wildlife. The shop was in violation of New York’s strengthened elephant ivory sale ban. The law, revised in 2014, prohibits the sale of any ivory unless the seller can demonstrate it is more than 100 years old and the item being sold is made up of less than 20 percent ivory. There is an exemption for sellers of antique guitars and pianos, which often include ivory inlays, but the store was selling much more than that.

Officials discovered 126 elephant ivory pieces for sale at the store, including two pairs of un-carved elephant tusks, priced at $200,000 and $150,000.

The store declined to comment on the seizure.

“Through Governor [Andrew] Cuomo’s leadership in enacting the ban on the sale of ivory, we are continuing to take aggressive action to crack down on illegal ivory in New York state,” Basil Seggos, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said in a statement. “The worldwide elephant population is hanging in the balance. With today’s action, we are sending a strong message to poachers, traffickers, and dealers that we are committed to stopping this heinous activity.”

Seized ivory. (Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society)

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The department discovered illegal ivory at the store in November 2015, when undercover officers purchased an ivory carving from a Metropolitan Antiques salesperson, who told the officers the item was mammoth ivory. They bought it for $2,000, analyzed it, and determined the item was made from elephant ivory.

Officials plan to destroy the seized items on World Elephant Day in August 2017 as part of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Ivory Crush event.

Elephants are in peril thanks in part to the illegal wildlife trade, a black market worth an estimated $7 billion to $23 billion annually, according to the United Nations. A 2016 population estimate shows that 352,000 African bush elephants are roaming the savanna today—a 30 percent decline in just seven years.

Between 2010 and 2012, it’s estimated that as many as 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers in Africa, driven by the high demand for ivory in the illegal wildlife trade.

Stronger ivory trade laws such as New York’s are integral to preserving the future of the species, said John Calvelli, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s 96 Elephants campaign.

“What’s important to understand is that the killing of elephants in Africa can be driven by trade right in our own backyards,” Calvelli said, noting that the U.S. is the world’s second-largest market for trafficked ivory, with most sales occurring in New York, California, and Hawaii.

Those three states have all passed laws in the last three years banning domestic ivory sales, and the Obama administration pushed a nationwide ban on nearly all African elephant ivory sales this summer. The progress has heartened Calvelli, who worked with then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on strategies to quash demand in the ivory trade.

“While it’s imperative to stop the killing in Africa, stopping the trafficking of those products is just as important,” Calvelli said. “Closing the markets in New York, California, and Hawaii—the hot spots of the domestic trade—and increasing the penalties those involved in the trade can face is fundamental in slowing the demand and saving elephants in the process.”

Busts like the one at Metropolitan Antiques are critical in changing the perception of ivory as a product worth buying—antique or not.

“This really sends a message to criminals that you’re not going to get away with it if you’re in New York,” Calvelli said. “If you are found, you’re going to get prosecuted. It’s really about educating Americans that this is an issue not only across the sea but right here in the U.S. The legal market has masked an illegal market for some time, but now there is no distinction: If you are buying ivory, you are destabilizing Africa and endangering these beautiful animals.”