Is that ivory new or antique? Burden of proof is on owner

Posted on September 30, 2012


HOW can you tell if ivory is new or old?

Ask the owner.

Unlike an elephant’s tusk which is obvious contraband, determining the age of an ivory carving requires more than plain sight.

The DENR said it will ask the National Museum of the Philippines to help determine if a piece of ivory is an antique since the agency lacks expertise.

“No one from the DENR can say that he or she is an expert of ivory especially in determining whether the pieces were antique or not,” said Isabelo Montejo, DENR director for Central Visayas.

He said collectors would have to prove that the ivory items are acquired before the 1981, the year the Philippines signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Montejo assured that collectors would be given due process and a chance to prove that their ivory pieces were not illegal acquired.

The DENR investigation is starting with the collection of Msgr. Cris Garcia but officials said coverage extends to all collectors of illegal acquired ivory items.

Collectors would be asked to submit documents to prove that their ivory pieces were not covered by the 1981 ban.

These include sales invoices that would prove that these pieces were bought through legitimate traders or manufacturers.

Montejo said they can also ask the Bureau of Customs to check the papers of items brought outside the country.

There are scientific ways to determine the age of ivory but it’s not an easy process.

Fr. Brian C. Brigoli, head curator of the Cathedral Museum of Cebu,said Cebu doesn’t have chemicals for test that will determine the age of the ivory.

There are conservation laboratories in the University of Sto. Tomas and the National Museum of the Philippines but Brigoli who was trained in the conservation of artifacts said he is not aware if they have the equipment or chemical supplies for this task.


Brigoli said there are different of ways to determine the age of the ivory pieces.

The artistry, craftsmanship and associated fabrics of the ivory pieces can provide information on the age of the ivory pieces especially if these are peculiar to a particular era, said Brigoli. Provenance of the ivory items can also determine if these are manufactured before the ban on ivory in 1981.

This may be written  documents and certifications that can attest that the ivory items are antique.

The provenance may also be oral – people who can vouch that the ivory pieces are heirloom items.

Carbon dating may not be effective, said archeologist  Jojo Bersales, because it can only work on artifacts that are at least 300 years old.

“You also destroy a part of the object if you do radio carbon dating,” he said.

Photos can be used as proof that the ivory pieces are heirlooms, said Bersales. Most families, he added, had photos of their ivory pieces that were taken several years back.

“You cannot tell the age by looking at it. You have to rely what the owner can say. It is really an examination of conscience,” he said.

Louie Nacorda, renowned iconographer in Cebu, agreed.

“Do they have a machine that will determine if the (ivory) piece is before 1981?” Nacorda asked.

“How do you determine the age of ivory? I don’t also know. On the surface, pareho man na sila (they all look the same),” he added.

He cited the life-sized image of the Our Lady of the Rosary of “La Naval” in Sto. Domingo Church in Quezon City, considered the oldest ivory carving in the Philippines.

Although it was carved in 1593, the image was so well preserved that it looked new.

Even if investigators would have raw ivory on their hands, he added they could not also be sure if this was new.

“If I may give an advice, instead of taking on the collectors, they should go after the traders. Ivory images are openly sold in Manila,” said Nacorda.

Nacorda, who owns less than 20 ivory pieces, said some of his collections were brought in Manila. The rest were heirloom pieces.

Still, he added traders would also demand from the investigators to show proof that the ivory pieces were obtained after the 1981 ban.

Nacorda stressed that the trading of ivory takes place in Manila and not in Cebu./WITH INQUIRER

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