Owners of ivory artefacts could be sleepwalking into fines and prison sentences because of a forthcoming ban on the sale of such items that has been called “one of the world’s toughest“. 

The Government is bringing in laws to ban all ivory sales, with punishments of up to five years in prison or a £250,000 fine. The new law is meant to stifle trade in ivory and protect elephants.

However, there are some exceptions. You can buy or sell items containing ivory if they were made before 1947 and contain less than 10pc of the material by volume.

If an ivory item is a portrait miniature at least 100 years old, or is particularly rare or culturally important, it is also exempt.

Musical instruments such as pianos are also unaffected by the ban, if they were made before 1975 and contain less than 25pc ivory.

Ivory can still legally be owned and given away under the new rules.

Freya Simms, of Lapada, a trade body also known as the Association of Art & Antiques Dealers, said public awareness of the ivory changes was low.

“The [industry] is aware, but where I think it will be punishing is the general public. There will be many people who are unaware that, if they wish to sell their item, they will need to register it and understand the criteria.”

A person who wants to sell an item that is exempt from the ban will need to register it with the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency.

There will be a fee to access the register, which has not yet been set up. More details will be laid out when the bill is finalised.

Those who could inadvertently fall foul of the new rules include people who sell ivory accidentally, perhaps through arranging a house clearance auction for a dead relative.

Ms Simms said fear of putting a foot wrong could lead to ivory owners either not selling them or removing any ivory sections before a sale.

She added: “One worry is a lot of domestic cultural heritage may end up on the scrapheap because it will be labour intensive and potentially expensive to register these items. I think it will be quite a surprise how many items have a little bit of ivory and how many people have them in their home.”

Critics say the new rules could backfire if criminals use the exemptions to pass off illegal ivory as legitimate goods.

Will Travers, of Born Free, a wildlife charity, said: “The tightly-drawn exemptions in the bill, which will allow limited continued trade in some older items of exceptional artistic or cultural value, certain musical instruments, and trade between museums, must be rigorously enforced in order that they do not become loopholes through which poachers and traffickers can launder the products of their grisly business.”  

Currently all ivory items made before 1947 can be freely bought and sold, though importers and exporters need a permit.

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