How Much is Ivory Worth in 2023? A Comprehensive Guide

Ivory has long been prized as a luxurious and valuable material, but its trade has become increasingly regulated and controversial in recent years due to the devastating impact it has had on elephant populations worldwide. As a result, the ivory market today is a complex and often opaque one, with prices that can vary widely depending on a host of factors from provenance and age to artistic merit and legal status.

In this in-depth article, we‘ll untangle the many threads that make up the global ivory trade and provide a clear-eyed look at what this coveted material is really worth – both in monetary terms and in terms of its ecological and ethical cost. Whether you‘re a collector, a conservationist, or simply someone with an interest in the often murky world of ivory, read on for an expert‘s take on this multifaceted issue.

The Historical Ivory Trade: Prices, Volumes, and Trends

To understand the ivory market today, it‘s essential to look at its long and checkered history. Ivory has been traded and treasured by humans for millennia, with evidence of carved ivory objects dating back as far as 30,000 years.

However, the ivory trade reached its peak during the colonial era from the 17th to early 20th centuries. During this time, European powers and American traders exported massive quantities of ivory from Africa to meet skyrocketing demand back home for ivory jewelry, piano keys, billiard balls, and other luxury items.

According to a study by researcher W. Keith Parker, the major colonial powers collectively imported over 1.3 million kilograms (1433 tons) of ivory in 1897 alone, representing tens of thousands of poached elephants. Ivory was big business, with a typical London auction price of around £9 10s per 50 kilograms in the late 1800s – equivalent to about £1,200 ($1500) in today‘s money.

This feverish demand, combined with increasingly efficient guns and hunting methods, decimated African elephant herds. By the 1970s, their numbers had plunged from several million at the turn of the 20th century to just over 1 million. The price of ivory, meanwhile, surged along with its newfound scarcity, reaching highs of around $300 per pound ($660 per kg) in 1978.

Facing a conservation crisis, governments and international bodies began implementing restrictions and bans on the ivory trade in the 1970s-80s, culminating in the global ban on international ivory transactions under CITES in 1989. While this measure helped to reduce poaching and allowed some elephant populations to recover, the ivory black market has remained stubbornly active in many parts of the world.

The Price of Ivory Today: A Murky Market

Fast forward to the present day, and the ivory market is a shadow of its former self – but one that still exerts an outsized influence on both elephant conservation and the shadowy underworld of wildlife trafficking.

The price of ivory can vary significantly across different countries and market sectors. At a wholesale level, raw ivory prices in Africa have hovered around $200-$250 per kilogram in recent years according to data from the Wildlife Justice Commission. However, retail prices for worked ivory can be several times higher.

According to a 2017 report by Save The Elephants, the average price for illegal raw ivory in China was around $2100/kg at its peak in 2014 before falling to $730/kg in 2017 as the government began shutting down its domestic ivory trade. Meanwhile, legal ivory sold at auction in the US and Europe has gone for sums ranging from $500-$2000+/kg depending on the item and its provenance.

Here are some representative data points illustrating the range of recent ivory prices across various markets and product types:

Ivory Type Price per kg (USD) Market and Year
Raw (illegal) $200-$250 Africa, 2020
Raw (illegal) $730 China, 2017
Carved (illegal) $2000-$4000 Vietnam, 2017
Carved (legal) $500-$2000+ US/Europe, 2019
Jewelry (legal) $3000+ Hong Kong, 2018

As this data shows, the price of ivory is hardly a fixed or transparent number. It can vary by an order of magnitude or more depending on whether the ivory in question is raw or worked, legal or illegal, fresh or antique, and what part of the world it is being bought or sold in.

This variability reflects the fractured and often illicit nature of the modern ivory trade. With most sales happening either on the black market or in tightly regulated legal channels, it can be very difficult to determine the fair market value for any given piece of ivory.

The Enduring Lure of Ivory

Despite intense global efforts to curb the ivory trade and reduce demand, ivory remains a highly coveted status symbol and artistic material, particularly in East and Southeast Asia.

A 2018 survey by the World Wildlife Fund found that a significant share of consumers in China (12%), Thailand (9%), and Vietnam (9%) still intended to purchase ivory in the future, citing its perceived beauty, cultural significance, and investment value. This persistent demand continues to fuel the poaching of an estimated 20,000-30,000 elephants per year.

On the supply side, the ivory trade also remains a key funding source for organized criminal syndicates, militias, and terrorist groups who see it as a low-risk, high-reward commodity. A 2016 investigation by the Elephant Action League estimated that ivory smuggling generates between $200-$400 million per year in illicit revenues.

These twin factors of high demand and easy profits suggest that ivory will maintain both its monetary value and its dire impact on elephant populations for the foreseeable future, despite accelerating bans and declining consumer interest in other parts of the world.

Identifying and Authenticating Ivory

For those who own, collect, or are considering purchasing ivory, properly identifying and authenticating pieces is essential – both to ensure compliance with relevant laws and to avoid being duped by the many fakes and substitutes on the market.

Ivory can come from a variety of sources including Asian and African elephants, mammoths, walruses, sperm whales, hippos, and boar. Each type has its own distinctive color, texture, and grain pattern that can aid in identification. For example, elephant ivory typically features diamond-shaped cross-hatchings called Schreger lines, while mammoth ivory has a more marbled look.

Here are some of the key visual and physical characteristics ivory experts look for:

  • Color: Ranges from pure white to yellow/brown depending on age and species
  • Texture: Smooth, fine-grained surface with a satin sheen or luster
  • Grain: Visible cross-hatching, linear striations, or marbling
  • Heaviness: Relatively dense and weighty compared to artificial substitutes
  • Hardness: Resists denting or scratching but is still carvable
  • Patina: Develops a characteristic aged coloring and surface cracking over time

However, accurately distinguishing real ivory from items made of bone, antler, shell, nut, or synthetic materials often requires lab tests like Schreger line analysis, UV fluorescence, and DNA mapping. The US Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a forensics lab dedicated to identifying ivory using these techniques.

Provenance is also key for establishing an ivory object‘s legality and fair market value. Paperwork documenting the item‘s age, source, and history of ownership is essential. An expert appraisal can also help verify and value an ivory piece based on its artistry, rarity, and condition.

The Ethics and Conservation Impact of Ivory

While much of the discussion around ivory focuses on its investment value or artistic merits, it‘s impossible to ignore the devastating toll the ivory trade has taken on the world‘s elephant populations.

African savanna elephant numbers have plunged more than 60% in the past half-century, while forest elephants have declined by 86% in just the last 30 years. Asian elephants, whose males only rarely develop tusks, have fared somewhat better but remain endangered due to habitat loss and human-elephant conflict.

In addition to the direct impact of poaching, the ivory trade has also fueled corruption, crime, and instability in many elephant range states. A 2016 study by researchers at the University of Utah found that elephant poaching rates were strongly correlated with poverty, government corruption, and the frequency of civil unrest in African countries.

The legal trade in ivory has also come under fire for potentially enabling the laundering of black market tusks and perpetuating demand. A 2018 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency found that most ivory sold legally in Europe lacked proper documentation and likely consisted of illicit or new ivory passed off as antique.

Faced with these grim realities, conservationists and policymakers have increasingly pushed for a complete ban on all ivory sales, arguing that any legal trade provides cover for poaching and makes ivory socially acceptable. Others have proposed limited legal trading as a way to fund conservation efforts and incentivize local communities to protect their elephants.

Whichever approach prevails, it‘s clear that the future of ivory as a coveted commodity is inextricably linked to the fate of the majestic animals that produce it. Only by breaking the cycle of supply and demand that drives the ivory trade can we hope to ensure that elephants continue to roam the earth for generations to come.

The Future of Ivory: Values and Prospects

As public awareness of the ivory trade‘s toll on elephants has grown in recent years, so too have efforts to restrict or eliminate it altogether. The US and China, two of the world‘s largest ivory markets, have both implemented near-total domestic bans on ivory sales in the past decade. The UK and EU have also tightened their ivory trade regulations, while pressure is growing on holdout nations like Japan to follow suit.

These moves, combined with falling demand and increased enforcement, have helped to reduce elephant poaching and drive down ivory prices in some key markets. Raw ivory prices in China fell 65% from 2014-2017 after the government began closing down its legal ivory trade.

However, the impact of these measures on elephant populations remains to be seen, and the illegal ivory trade continues to thrive in many parts of Africa and Asia. As long as there is money to be made from ivory, poachers and traffickers will find a way to supply it.

In the meantime, the legal ivory market is likely to continue to shrink and become more tightly regulated in the years ahead. This could drive up prices for the remaining pool of legal, antique ivory objects as they become scarcer and more sought-after by collectors.

However, it may also reduce liquidity and make it harder for ivory owners to sell their pieces, as buyers become warier of the legal and ethical risks involved. The use of ivory substitutes like mammoth tusks, tagua nuts, and synthetic materials may also impact values for the real thing.

Ultimately, the future of ivory as a commodity will depend on the success of efforts to protect elephants and combat the illegal trade. If elephant populations are able to recover and poaching can be brought under control, limited legal ivory sales may become more viable and socially acceptable. However, if current trends continue, ivory may increasingly become a relic of a tragic and unsustainable past.

For now, those who own or are considering acquiring ivory should proceed with caution and do their due diligence to ensure that any pieces are properly documented, legally compliant, and ethically sourced. Expert guidance is essential in navigating this complex and fraught market.

Whether viewed as a precious material or a tainted symbol of human greed, ivory‘s value ultimately extends far beyond what it fetches on the market. By respecting the lives and natural habitats of the animals that produce it, we can ensure that this ancient and alluring substance endures not just as a coveted objet d‘art but as a living testament to the majesty of the natural world.

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