|Ivory teeters on the brink of taboo, with strict regulations on its import and sale at auction. While some oppose the use of animal teeth and tusks as ‘art’, others delight in its beauty and intricacy.
But ivory has been important since ancient times for making a range of items, from functional objects such as joint tubes, false teeth, bagpipes, cutlery handles and piano keys, to more playful dominos, billiard balls and artistic fans and carvings.
The Chinese have long valued ivory for both art and utilitarian objects. Early reference to the Chinese export of ivory is recorded after the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian ventured to the west to form alliances to enable for the eventual free movement of Chinese goods to the west; as early as the first century BC, ivory was moved along the Northern Silk Road for consumption by western nations.
Until the 19th century opening-up of the interior of Africa ivory was usually a rare and expensive material used for luxury products. Very fine detail can be achieved and as the material, unlike precious metals, has no bullion value and usually cannot easily be recycled, the survival rate for ivory pieces is much higher than for those in other materials. In 1989 CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) banned international sale of new ivory. Ivory can still be bought and sold if it complies with certain conditions: it is antique ivory (dated before 1947); it is mammoth ivory; or was part of the 1999 and 2008 CITES approved sales of ivory stockpiles in southern African countries.
Ivory remains a most sought-after commodity in China (and Japan too). Carved figures draw much interest and featuring in Thursday’s auction is a collection of seven Chinese ivory figures – seven of the eight Chinese Immortals. The Eight Immortals (pinyin: Bāxiān) are a group of legendary xian ("immortals; transcendents; saints") in Chinese mythology. Each Immortal's power can be transferred to a power tool that can bestow life or destroy evil. Together, these eight tools are called the "Covert Eight Immortals". With an estimate of £800-1200 I expect these figures, and the various other ivory objets d’art on offer, to draw much attention and work their magic in the saleroom on Thursday.