Risky Business

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  • Posted by kindle

Sometimes a benign hobby such as collecting antiques can be a risky business. Just how in the world can that be? Easy. There are several types of antiques and collectibles that unless you are an expert, they might just be best to avoid. Some items can get their owner into serious hot water with any number of authoritative agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms & Explosives (BATFE), The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and local, state, or federal agencies.

Some items that are not legal to buy, sell or own are obvious, but others not so much. For example, ivory items have been around for centuries: piano keys, billiard balls, silverware handles, carvings such as Asian Netsuke or Alaskan Native scrimshaw, jewelry, dominoes and mahjong sets, cribbage boards, backscratchers, musical instruments and more. The list goes on.

Over the years the ivory trade has seen some historic changes and new laws regarding the sale and use of animal products are being created and enforced as I write this.

For instance, this from the U.S. Fish and Game website – regarding ivory.

“On July 6, 2016, a near-total ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory went into effect in the United States. It’s important to note that the new regulations do not restrict personal possession of ivory. If you already own ivory – an heirloom carving that’s been passed down in your family, or a vintage musical instrument with ivory components, those pieces are yours. We know those items created long ago aren’t threatening today’s wild elephants.”

There are many U.S. Laws that protect wildlife and control what items you may purchase, own and use. Many wildlife laws prohibit the sale or purchase of products made from a protected species. On the space coast we are all familiar with the shell of the sea turtle. I have seen my fair share in homes used for decoration and have even been offered them for sale. It is best to ask an expert or the regulating agency if you can purchase the item in question before you buy it.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects more than 1,000 U.S. bird species and there is also The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Under the current language of the Eagle Feather Law, only individuals of certifiable American Indian ancestry enrolled in a federally recognized tribe are legally authorized to obtain eagle feathers. Unauthorized persons found with an eagle or its parts in their possession can be fined up to $250,000.

In addition, we have The Endangered Species Act and The Marine Mammal Protection Act (remember the sea turtle shell?). The largest such international treaty is CITES – The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This treaty is huge in scope and can regulate items that were created even before the adoption of the treaty. An interesting note about the CITES Treaty is in can apply to live animals as well.

Violation of just one of these treaties or laws can find the offender in the jurisdiction of not just local or federal law enforcement, but international authorities as well.

I once knew an artist in Pennsylvania who would pick up crow feathers along the beach and incorporate them into his artwork. He was charged on more than one occasion for using the parts of a protected species and was fined. Crows are regulated because they are a US species. The authorities don’t know if you found the feather on the road, or killed the bird yourself to obtain the feather. So don’t even pick them up.

Wildlife items that are best to avoid:

African Elephant Ivory – Near total ban as of July, 6th 2016.

Asian Elephant Ivory – There are many laws regarding this and some items are allowable with correct permitting and documentation. In my opinion it’s best to leave it be.

Rhino Horn – No interstate or international sales, but if it’s here, you might be able to buy or sell it with proper paperwork and permits. Again, probably not worth the hassle.

Brazilian rosewood – Guitars, marimbas, chess sets, furniture inlay and other items often featured this beautiful wood. The items would have to have been created before listing in CITES.

Grizzly Bear and other U.S. Species – no interstate or international sale of any type regardless of age. Sale only allowed within the home state unless prohibited by state law.

Walrus Ivory – Sale is legal if “pre act” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) or is Alaskan Native handicraft.

Whale teeth or bone – National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is the authoritative agency here – cannot import or export without permit.

Polar Bear – Sale in U.S.is legal if “pre act” under MMPA (1972) or authentic Alaskan Native handicraft

Taxidermied migratory birds – All prohibited regardless of specimen’s age. This includes items such as ladies hats and feather boas.

Taxidermied Bald or Golden Eagle feathers or parts – Sale prohibited regardless of age.

Sea turtle shell – No interstate or international commerce. Sale within state may be allowed unless violates use after import limitations – Jewelry, combs, mirror casings, guitar picks and instruments, inlays. Best to have provenance paperwork.

In order to buy, sell or own some antiques of this type they must qualify for an ESA (Endangered Species Act) exemption. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission handles this area and the items must be at least 100 years old with proof and must meet other strict criteria.

However these are not the only items to pause over before buying. Items other than protected species parts or whole animals can land someone heavy fines and or jail time if not researched properly.

Firearms to be classified as an antique must have been manufactured prior to 1898 and cannot have been converted to fire modern ammunition. If not, they follow all the regular firearm rules. Native American artifacts fall under the guidelines of the ARPA (Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979). Many of these artifacts are culturally significant and may not be owned outside of a museum.

In addition to the wild animals and birds discussed above, domestic dog and cat fur as well as items made from it are also not importable.

One must also use caution when buying things in other countries while travelling. Artworks, and national historic artifacts are also being confiscated at a brisk pace if sold illegally. Foreign countries are eager to have their artifacts and national treasures repatriated. In addition, there are often bans on items that are not widely known. For instance there is a ban on all Iranian goods at present.

Items that were brought back as war souvenirs are found every day in homes and people who don’t know what to do with them, find themselves in difficult situations. Fully automatic firearms and even live grenades occasionally turn up. There are collections being found around the globe that have huge historical significance that were amassed before many of these laws went into effect but these circumstances sometimes don’t alter the legalities and the collector suffers the consequences.

This article is by no means to be construed as legal advice. If you are in a situation where you currently own, or wish to buy or sell one or more of these types of items, a prudent course of action would be to contact one of the agencies listed (and this is by no means a complete list). They will tell you exactly how to stay safe within the law to ensure your intended treasure is one you may legally own and enjoy.


This article in an edited form was published on www.floridatoday.com on August 24th 2018 and in the print edition of Florida Today on Sunday August 26th