All trade in raw African ivory was outlawed worldwide four years ago when member nations of a trade convention accorded the African elephant 'endangered species' status. (Trade in Indian ivory has long been illegal.) But antique carved ivory - more than 100 years old - was not included in the ban.
This month, as arguments broke out afresh between champions of a total ban on raw ivory sales and conservationists who favour licensed sales from 'managed herds', a spectacular sale of carved ivories at Phillips in London found buyers for all but three of its 386 lots.
Has the ivory ban sent prices through the roof? The success of the sale was deceptive. True, this was the biggest collection of Japanese and Chinese carved ivories to hit the market for more than 15 years. (It had consumed much of the spare brass of a Yorkshire industrialist, the late Sydney Duckitt.) True, the pieces were exquisitely carved, fresh to market and in tip-top condition. And a handful of private buyers seeking a memento of Mr Duckitt helped to nudge prices to a sale total of pounds 378,365.
But prices were not much higher than they would have been 10 or 12 years ago. Which means that since then the value of carved ivory has dropped in real terms by more than half. The sale was a textbook example of auction strategy by Phillips' Desmond Healey. His 'come-on' pre-sale estimates were consistently about two-thirds of the price fetched. 'It would have been extraordinary if it had not gone well,' he said. But there was no saleroom buzz, just sober buying. It might have been a stamp or coin auction.
It is not that British collectors, having acquired conservation consciousness, have withdrawn from the ivory market. They have simply been losing interest in Oriental antiques for years. Almost all the ivories bought by British dealers at Phillips will end up overseas - even if they are sold on to other British dealers first. Dealers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and some European countries - Belgium, Spain, Italy - scour the London dealers for collectable pieces. Most notable absentees from the market for Japanese ivory are Japanese dealers. Even antique ivories imported into Japan can languish in customs warehouses for months. It is an unofficial import ban by a government sensitive about its image abroad.
Some British ivory dealers have received abusive letters from opponents of the ivory trade. One north London trade-only dealer in Oriental art, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: 'Every moneyed British household 100 years ago had Oriental vases and ivories. Now all people want to do is sell them. Oriental objects go round the home trade before going abroad, eventually to private collectors. When the collector dies they come back to London, the world's main auction centre, and start circulating again.
'I think if two antique dealers were marooned on a desert island with just one antique, they would make a living out of it for the rest of their lives.'
Malcolm Fairley, a director of Barry Davies, London, Europe's biggest dealer specialising in Japanese art, snapped up the top lots at the Phillips sale. He said the market for carved ivory had certainly declined in the past 10 years. But, like the anonymous north London dealer, attributed it not to the ivory ban - only four years old - but to changes in taste dating back a decade or more. 'The ivory ban is completely irrelevant,' he said.
He was in charge of London's last regular ivory-dedicated sales at Sotheby's mid-market Belgravia saleroom, which closed in 1983, having led the taste for Victoriana. He dated the decline in demand for late 19th-century decorative artworks - including Oriental antiques such as ivories - to then, since when prices had remained static. Small collectors had bought inexpensive ivories at Sotheby's Belgravia, he said, but had been too timid to attend the big salerooms after it closed. The cheaper ivories were now scattered in provincial auctions instead of the big salerooms.
Under the ivory ban of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), member nations now ensure that all ivory objects must be vetted before being exported. In this country, the British Antique Dealers' Association does the vetting, licensing only antique exports.
As for the stigma of ivory in Britain, Mr Fairley said: 'None of us would trade in anything but antique ivory. We're as concerned at the fate of the elephant as anybody, but a total ban on ivory trading is not realistic. A total ban on rhinoceros horn trading has virtually ensured the destruction of the rhino. It has encouraged illegal trade which can't be monitored. That is how the real damage is done.'
Among his buys from the Phillips sale is a fine Tokyo School figure of a Buddhist maiden, estimated at pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000, for which he paid pounds 12,100. He knew it had been exhibited at the 1904 St Louis Exhibition. No one else knew that, but he still had to fight for it.
The Tokyo School of Japanese carvers - little is known even of those who signed their work - studied in Europe in the 50 years spanning the turn of the century. Their Western-influenced style is naturalistic, sculptural. Mr Fairley was not deceived by the Japanese features of a fisherman, estimated pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500. 'Tokyo School,' he said, in defiance of the catalogue. He carried off the sale's two star lots: a detailed 17in Tokyo School rakan, or holy man, estimated at pounds 5,000-pounds 7,000, for which he paid pounds 14,300, and an 8in-high group of 16 rakan, with the same estimate, for which he paid pounds 13,200. Not high prices compared with Belgravia days, when he had sold an ivory falconer for pounds 20,000.
You need to know Japanese iconography in order to identify carved figures or okimono. If the figure is male with moneybags, it is almost certainly Hotei, the god of happiness. Among the seven gods of good fortune is Ebisu, representing daily food. He is sculpted with a sea bream. But then, so are most Japanese fishermen. Rats, frogs and snakes, as well as gods, are among the subjects that delighted Japanese ivory carvers. Their carvings could be familiar or saucy, as shown by a stinking-fish card case, estimated at pounds 600- pounds 800 in Phillips' 9 June sale, and a couple sampling mushrooms, bought by Mr Fairley for pounds 2,200 (est pounds 800-pounds 1,200).
The bibles of Japanese iconography in art are Pointers and Clues to the Subjects of Chinese and Japanese Art, by Will H Edmunds (Sampson Low, London, first published 1905, reprinted 1934 and 1974), and the illustrated Legend in Japanese Art, by Henri L Joly (1908, reprints to 1979). The Far Eastern art book supplier Han-Shan Tang Books, 42 Westleigh Avenue, London SW15 6RL (081-788 4464), said among its ivory reference books was a 1934 Edmunds at pounds 165. It had no Joly but reprints sold, when available, for about pounds 65.