Wednesday, January 21, 2015


I have been thinking about posting my thoughts on endangered species materials for years now, and every time I sit down to start writing, I stop and reflect on the impact it may have.  I have personal and professional friends who are on both sides of this issue.  I also argue with myself from time to time, trying to decide how I feel.  It is a very difficult problem to resolve.

First of all, there is a jewel cabinet which sits at the top of this blog which contains ivory feet and knobs.  It is one of my best creations and has been exhibited in museum shows on both sides of this country, as well as published in several magazines.  When I made it I took particular concern that the ivory be from legal stock, harvested in Kenya before 1963, and I have legal papers which confirm that fact.  It wasn't until 10 years later that the creation of an international convention to protect endangered species was signed ( C.I.T.I.E.S.) forcing nations to control and restrict the sale of such materials.  The purpose of this treaty was to prevent the continued depletion of certain precious materials but at the same time allow for the continued consumption of existing stock.  Thus, each legitimate business which had inventory of a protected substance would register the amount of stock and provide certificates with each sale showing the amount sold and the origin of that stock.

When I purchased the Brazilian rosewood (dalbergia negra) for my Louis Philippe tables from Patrick George, I got papers which certified it was harvested in Brazil in 1952.  Mr. George indicated on my papers the actual amount of wood and, at the same time, reduced that amount from his list of legal stock.  In theory, each dealer who maintained stock of these endangered materials would reduce their inventory lists until they were depleted, at which time there would no longer be any stock.

The same process was used with the ivory material I consumed for the jewel cabinet.  I purchased the blanks from David Warther, and was given a certificate authenticating the ivory as pre-C.I.T.I.E.S.  I included this certificate with the sale of the cabinet for the protection of the owner in the future.

I watch in dismay as each day brings news of the elimination of rhinos and elephants from the face of the earth due to illegal poaching.  Obviously the efforts to legislate the control of horns and tusks has had little effect on their activities, unless it is to raise the value of their horrible trade in other markets.  I cannot express the feelings I have when I see tons of illegal ivory being destroyed by countries to make a point.  I feel the same way when I see antique pianos being crushed by tractors in the dump, with no effort to salvage the ivory, ebony or rosewood materials they contain.

Let me make a simple observation about efforts to control endangered species by contrasting two materials: tortoise shell and rosewood.  People harvest sea turtles because the meat is a food and they taste great (so I read; I have no desire to sample sea turtle).  Thus, if the shell is no longer valuable, people continue to harvest the turtles, eat the meat, and then throw the shell back in the ocean.  On the other hand, in Brazil where the rubber tree is a valuable item, natives make every effort to protect the rubber tree from destruction.  By making the rosewood tree illegal to harvest, and therefore not valuable, there is no protection for the trees that have survived,  and acres of ancient forest are systematically burned to open up land for farming, with no regard to the species of trees destroyed.

What if the rosewood tree was worth thousands of dollars?  What would change?  Would the forests be saved and managed or would the tree just be cut down and sold and then the rest of the forest would be burned as before? Does international legislation have any effect on a farmer with a match?

I do understand that C.I.T.I.E.S. has had a profund and positive effect on managing the international trade of certain materials, but only among those nations who fully support its mission.  For example, in the past year America has proposed and adopted more specific legislation regarding the control of ivory, and this year similar bills have been proposed in California (AB96).  More information can be found here:Ivory Education Institute

As a professional conservator in private practice for the past 45 years, I have collected a good supply of ivory, tortoiseshell, Cuban mahogany, Brazilian rosewood, and many other materials which are currently listed on the C.I.T.I.E.S. list.  All of this material was purchased years before there was any concern with their ownership, and I have no records to prove that I purchased them legally.  Only the materials purchased since the passage of restrictive legislation have certificates.  My business is restoration of objects of art which contain similar materials and that is how I use them.

More and more the decision to use these materials is causing a serious dilemma for me.  It is not clear to me what the future holds for collectors of antiques which often contain precious materials.  Do I use a piece of tortoise shell to restore a missing element in a Boulle clock?  Should I use a scrap of an ivory piano key to make a missing key plate?  How about a scrap of Cuban mahogany veneer being recycled to restore a Georgian card table?  I cannot bring myself to substitute plastic filler or paint and putty to make such repairs, as is more and more the case these days.

I decided to sit down and post these thoughts today since the possibility that all objects which contain ivory will loose their value is a serious concern.  A good example of this is the work of Aaron Radelow.  Aaron is a young furniture maker who I have known for some time.  I first met him when I was the Superintendent of the Design in Wood Show at the Del Mar Fair.  His work was always large, massive and complicated to assemble.  I suggested that he focus more on smaller designs with more detail and "finesse".  He subsequently attended classes at my school where he discovered French marquetry.  During one of these classes I mentioned that the ivory table in the J. Paul Getty collection was perhaps the finest example of work I had seen, and that it had never been copied.  His response was that he would make a copy, and I was quick to dampen his spirits.  I pointed out that it was "iconic" and a "masterpiece" like the Mona Lisa, and that it was "sacred" or some other crap.

Well, he did it.  He spent several years in research, consulted with Brian Considine at the Getty, purchased thousands of dollars of legal ivory and horn and figured out how to do it.  Not only did he succeed in making and exact copy of the original table, he also produced the counter part, which has never existed.  Both of his tables were here in my shop for several weeks as my partner, Patrice Lejeune applied the French polish, so I had a good chance to examine the work.  In my opinion these tables are equal to the original in every respect, and even Dr. Pierre Ramond wrote that they were unique in his experience.

More information on how he was able to produce these pieces is here: Making The King's Furniture

Now the problem:  After thousands of hours of work by a very talented craftsman, using legal materials, what is their value?  How do you recognize this achievement and where will they end up?  When he started work on this project he had every expectation that they would be worth a lot of money, and in my opinion, they are nearly priceless.  However, due to subsequent legislation they may end up as illegal or certainly difficult to sell.

Here is a photo of his tables on either side of the original in the J. Paul Getty Museum:

Radelow, Gole, Radelow

What does the future hold for these and other great works of Art?


Jonas Jensen said...

Thanks for the very interesting article.
I am afraid that if it will become illegal to sell furniture which is containing e.g. ivory and ebony, than these objects might very well be sold off on a new black market.
There will always be people who can appreciate a fine piece of furniture. The problem with this approach is that it might be drug lords or people who has got some money to spend that can't see the light of day.
Kind of like what we see with ebony and rhino horns now.

Regarding you comment on old pianos, I have often played with the idea of purchasing one, just for salvage purposes. The only problem is that I would have to come up with a project that was within my capabilities to produce.

Again thanks for writing this and expressing your opinion on the matter in public.

Anonymous said...

Patrick, thanks for writing about this. It's a tough topic, and as you point out without 100% cooperation from all countries it's hobbled. I can't help buy wonder if rather than a ban on trade a policy promoting responsible and ethical use wouldn't be better.

Federico said...

Destroy valuable material for me is a crime. Exactly how to hunt an elephant. If you need to repair a piece Boulle you need the turtle, there is nothing to do. If you have to build an ivory knob you need ivory. You can not use a piece of bone or ivory synthetic. The problem however for me it's just bureaucratic. Should I stop using black ebony Gabon just because it is a rare species? The ebony black is not an extraterrestrial species, if there today then I do not see why not grow it in the future. If the elephant tusks were recovered just sell them. Sell them with a certificate and the money they give to organizations that protect these animals. In the restoration of antique furniture serve original material. Can I recover from antique ivory billiard balls, I can buy the turtle by cabinetmakers French or retrieve it from old boxes, but it is not the same thing. how many turtles there are in Barbados? Many. Must make legal the sale and must carefully check, always providing certificates of origin. and must limit the quantities exported only uses proven, as in the restoration. The other day I was watching a beautiful box French ebony, brass and tortoise on Glorious things. The cover was not authentic but had been recovered by something else and then glued on. It does not matter. There were small pieces of turtle. If you have a small piece of turtle with a little 'patience run the restoration. hardest thing to create all the new panel. But if the piece had been bigger and wider, where I find the material I need? I can not paste together 10 pieces. For objects cheap I do not see any major problems, for the most important pieces ethically legal solutions are only 3: try the raw material from old cabinet makers, retrieve the piece to another piece of furniture, or give up work.