Purchase Story

Criminal Charges Filed in Ivory Trafficking Case

San Diego, California, City Attorney Mara W. Elliott announced on November 28, 2018, that criminal charges have been filed against the owner and an employee of the Carlton Gallery in La Jolla, California, for trafficking ivory in defiance of California law.

This prosecution follows the largest seizure of ivory products by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife since a state law banning their sale took effect in 2016. More than 300 pieces of ivory and items containing ivory were seized from the gallery and its warehouse.

The investigation into Carlton Gallery began in May 2017, when wildlife officers from the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Trafficking Unit observed two Art Deco sculptures that appeared to be ivory in the gallery’s Prospect Street display window. In December 2017 and March 2018, wildlife officers returned and observed additional items that appeared to contain ivory.

In a sting operation conducted on May 1, 2018, undercover wildlife officers purchased an ivory sculpture from salesperson Sheldon Miles Kupersmith, who offered to sell the officers three other sculptures containing ivory. Wildlife officers obtained and executed a search warrant later that day and seized 146 items containing ivory from the gallery.

The gallery’s owner, Victor Hyman Cohen, then led investigators to a warehouse nearby where officers seized 192 additional pieces of ivory. Most of the items contained ivory from elephants, while some contained ivory from the teeth of hippopotamuses. Cohen and Kupersmith were charged as individuals.

A law banning the sale of nearly all ivory in the state of California took effect on July 1, 2016. The ban encompasses the teeth and tusks of elephants, hippopotamuses, mammoths, mastodons, walruses, warthogs, whales, and narwhals, as well as rhinoceros horn, regardless of whether it is raw, worked, or powdered, or from a store or a private collection. Under the law, advertising the sale of any items containing ivory is also prohibited.

Two types of ivory products are exempted from the ban: musical instruments that are made of less than 20% ivory and were manufactured no later than 1975, and antiques that are made of less than 5% ivory and are more than 100 years old. Neither exception applies to the items seized from the Carlton Gallery.

A first-time violation of this law is a misdemeanor, subject to criminal penalties of up to a year in jail and fines of $1000 to $40,000, depending upon the value of the items.

“Seizing more than 300 pieces of ivory as evidence valued in excess of $1.3 million is representative of innumerable elephants and other species of wildlife poached for their ivory,” said David Bess, deputy director and chief of law enforcement for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Originally published in the January 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest

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