Elephant tusks have been a precious material for crafts for centuries. It is known that animals are deliberately killed for this purpose. The Liebieghaus in Frankfurt now displays a large exhibition of ivory. Does art outweigh morals here?
Dark rug, black pillars: The exhibition rooms in the basement of the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt are completely drenched in black. It catches your eye, 200 perfectly lit ivory sculptures. The show’s title says it all: “Great White”.
“You have to show something like that,” says Marica Buckling, curator of the show. Among the exhibits are masterpieces made by great sculptors. In fact, there is a very special rarity among Baroque and Rococo sculptures: “Wrath on a Spring Horse” from 1610, for example. It is considered the main work of an unknown artist known as “Furienmeister”. Or a pope’s portrait medal as a gift for a turning prince.
The ivory collection itself is also something special: collector Reiner Winkler, who died in 2020, bequeathed it to the Liebieghaus, and is considered the largest private collection in the world with this focus.
Liebieghaus wants to critically classify the ivory trade
However, curator Buckling is well aware that the materials from which these art sculptures are made are a thorn in the side of animals and conservationists in particular. For this reason, elephants were systematically killed. “Of course, ivory is a problematic material these days,” she admits.
However, the works on display are 300 or 400 years old. At the time, elephants were “still hunting a man against an animal” and not from a helicopter like today; The population has not yet been threatened. You could display something like this, says Bückling, and you might have to do it to make visitors aware of it.
In fact, the exhibition delves into the origin of ivory on large text panels on the wall. They show the route of the tusks from India and Africa to Europe. According to Bückling, a text in the exhibition catalog explicitly addresses how important the ivory trade is.
New law puts big hurdles for sale
But is this enough? Can ivory be displayed like this? Yes, according to Arnulf Koenke, a species conservation expert at the environmental protection organization, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). The WWF is not against holding such exhibitions. The prerequisite, however, was to provide information about what ivory consumption does today – and that an elephant was killed for every artifact, no matter how beautiful it was, regardless of whether the ivory was traded legally or illegally.
Exactly this distinction has been made by law since the beginning of the year. “Good,” i.e. ivory that is legally traded needs proof of its origin. Since January 19, treated ivory may only be traded if the pieces are older than 1947 and have a corresponding certificate. 1975 is the limit for musical instruments.
In a concrete sense, this means that anyone who inherits the ivory jewellery is entitled to own it, but may not sell it without a certificate of the date of manufacture. The legacy must first be assessed by an expert and the report submitted to the Species Conservation Authority, explains Jürgen Schütte, who runs the ivory carving company in Erbach (Odenwald). According to Schott, jewelry and other art objects can cost up to 200 euros, and sometimes a piano with ivory keys can cost more than 400 euros. Only then do you get a permit to sell.
Demand for ivory from East Asia
The Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) also seizes and destroys tons of illegally traded ivory each year. In June last year alone it reached 1.4 tons. According to Arnulf Koenke of the World Wide Fund for Nature, this is a clear signal of reduced demand for ivory.
They come mainly from East Asia, where large quantities of ivory and ivory are still delivered. Konke explains that elephants in particular remain critically endangered, with 20,000 animals killed each year. Of the approximately 400,000 elephants in Africa, 100,000 have disappeared in the past 10 years.
WWF expert: Education is more important than laws
This is why education is almost more important than laws. “Let’s buy less ivory, not buy the illegal product,” Konke demands, stressing that other materials would also be possible for elaborately carved sculptures or jewelry, such as palm nut or kuzu.
So it’s important to change habits and ways of thinking, says Konke. “Why do people buy ivory? What are their needs?” he asks. “And how can you satisfy these needs without having to buy something made of ivory?” Only if this is addressed over and over again at every art fair or auction can a rethink and lower demand for ivory in the long run. The exhibition at the Liebieghaus here can help, too.
Gorgeous white in Liebieghaus
The exhibition features 200 ivory and stylized sculptures from the Baroque and Rococo periods, and is open until January 1, 2023. The Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, the Städelsche Museums-Verein and the Städel Museum acquired the majority of Winkler’s collection in 2018 with the support of Kulturstiftung der Länder and Hessische Kulturstiftung. After his death in 2020, the patron bequeathed another 21 works of art to the Sculpture Museum, which are now available to the public for the first time.
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