Policy and Spirit – Champagne Flutes, Colonial Cabinets, and Skulls

When we set about creating and adopting our policy on the cessation of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn trade at Leonard Joel, I really had no experience of what this might mean for our business. The comfort I personally find in clarity and simplicity led me to the view that once adopted it would be a simple process of application, but we soon realised that even with a policy as simple in wording as ours, nothing is ever really that straightforward! No doubt that’s why some policy documents gather dust and get thrown into the “too hard basket” while others remain active and, as I’ve learnt, develop a spirit and direction all their own.

I’m pleased to say that here at Leonard Joel, and with much credit to our specialists that are managing categories where organic and animal material presents, our policy has fallen into the latter category; it is in every sense active and evolving. What we’ve learnt is that a policy like this can challenge our thinking and, in the process, extend the nature of its influence, in a positive fashion, over an organisation. A few examples, from the straightforward to the more complex, will illustrate.

As recently as June this year, I was in discussion with one of our specialists about a set of silver champagne flutes with worked ivory stems and whether they complied with our policy. Our policy states that firstly, the ivory content must not constitute more than 10%, by value or volume, of the entire piece (what we refer to as our de minimis standard) and secondly, that it must be manufactured circa 1920 or earlier. The cups were much later than 1920 in manufacture and so could not be sold by Leonard Joel, and they would likely not have met our 10% threshold either. This was a relatively simple case of our policy working practically and currently.

Other more nuanced and challenging situations present. Recently, we were offered an extraordinary 19th century rosewood cabinet on a chest. It was intricately inlaid with ivory and relative to the overall volume of rosewood, would likely have met our de minimis standard. It met our dateline criteria too. A multilateral discussion ensued between several of us. Yes, it met our criteria, but “did it feel right”? The panelled doors were resplendent with ivory, not mere incidental detailing but a celebration of workmanship and the material, the ivory. On this basis we decided against offering it. We never considered “spirit” when we adopted our policy with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), but we have learnt that any policy worth its weight will develop such an element when it’s being interpreted and applied; something like what the common law refers to as “the golden rule”. I like the notion that at Leonard Joel we are taking this approach.

Then, there are examples beyond the scope of our policy. Recently, we were offered for consignment a hippopotamus skull, a valuable item by the cold hard standards of an auction house. Was it legal to sell such an item? Yes. Did it breach our existing policy? No. Was the species endangered? No. But did it feel right for us? The answer lay in the sincere chatter that ensued between several of our staff on what our position should be in this instance. It was clear that our policy did not extend beyond elephant and rhinoceros material. What else would or should be excluded, we asked ourselves, if we went down this path? We decided, again, that the spirit of our policy should dictate an aversion to such an offering, and we declined to consign it.

We declined it with the knowledge that our policy is not perfect and that it will evolve and expand over time, both in its wording and its spirit. In the meantime, striving to apply and interpret our policy with sincerity is perfect enough.

JOHN ALBRECHT / Chairman & Head of Important Collections

October 2023