Legacy Dilemmas

What do we do when times change and the heirlooms that were once prized have fallen, not just out of fashion, but out of legality? In the wake of more and more countries banning the trade in ivory, what is the burden of family legacy?

We were cleaning out the attic of our house the other day, and we came upon a hand-embroidered red cloth bundle. It was among several items inherited from my husband’s grandmother, who passed away a while ago at the age of 105. Born in 1898, she left behind a house full of family treasures.

Somehow, this bundle had escaped our notice when we unpacked the boxes. We unwrapped the thick felt cloth, and found a set of knives with ivory handles. An ornate ivory-handled cake server was in another cloth. A further cloth bundle held a set of ebony-handled knives.

Ivory handled knife set banned
An inherited set of vintage ivory handled knives and cake server.
Photo: PKR

The pieces are all beautifully wrought and look like they are probably from the early part of the 20th century. The ivory and ebony are both smooth, light, and warm once held for a moment.

They also come from species we have exploited into endangered status. The trade in ivory and ivory products was recently banned in the United Kingdom and in China. This includes ivory that has been considered ‘legal’ for sale – which means it was harvested (a rather benign word) prior to 1976, when trade came under the restrictions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Meanwhile, the European Union considers taking similar steps.

Legal loopholes allow trade to continue – the total bans in the UK and China are a first step in shutting down any avenue for the sale of new ivory (i.e. taken from illegally poached elephants) under the guise of antique ivory, like the tableware we inherited, but the United States has started to roll back recent restrictions to allow more trade in endangered animal parts, including ivory. As one of the world’s main ivory markets, it matters.

Similar restrictions apply to the ebony knives, which is less controlled than ivory – maybe because many of the Diospyros genus of trees are less well-known than elephants.

I hold the ivory handles and think of the elephants I saw in South Africa – young ones defying our Jeep in youthful bravado, older ones munching tree branches while watchfully eyeing our passage. They are all potential victims of poachers looking to sell their tusks to make unnecessary objects like these knives.

I mean…of course the knives are beautiful to look at and to hold. They come from amazing materials taken from amazing and unique species. When they were manufactured and purchased, no one thought twice about owning luxury items from animals and trees that were still in abundance.

I can’t imagine putting them out on the table and using them to eat. It’s a modern dilemma to consider what should be done with the family legacies of exploitation in the form of flatware and trinkets. Do we pass them along to other family members? Do we destroy them? I don’t know.

For now, they will stay in their old red bundle and remain an action that still has to be taken.