Key change: The Ivory Act 2018

The UK is now home to some of the most stringent laws attempting to tackle the ivory trade thanks to the Ivory Act 2018. In this article we'll explain the effect of the Ivory Act 2018. We'll look at what is and isn't permitted, what is and isn't exempt, and how this might practically affect our clients.

Let’s imagine we own an ivory-keyed piano which we haven’t played for a good few years and are considering selling. What options do we have?

What does the Ivory Act do?

The Ivory Act prohibits dealing in ivory of any age. It makes it a criminal offence to do so, although you may still deal in exempt items. This prompts several questions:

  1. What does ‘dealing’ mean?
  2. What constitutes ‘ivory’?
  3. What could the consequences be?
  4. What are the exemptions?

What does ‘dealing’ mean?

Dealing has a wide-ranging definition under the act, which covers the following:

  • buying, selling or hiring ivory
  • offering or arranging the purchase, sale or hire of ivory
  • keeping ivory with the intention of selling or hiring it
  • exporting ivory from or importing it into the UK with the intention of selling or hiring it
  • making it possible for someone else to do any of the above (even if you aren't directly involved)

Buying and selling include trades and swaps for valuable items, or for discounts in a store. Offering includes advertising and inviting offers. 

It's fair to say this doesn't leave a great deal of wriggle room when it comes to how we treat our notional ivory-keyed piano. However, it doesn't mean we can’t do anything with it. The act still permits us to own ivory (provided we don't intend to sell or hire it), gift it, bequeath it or lend it out provided there's no payment, exchange or barter involved.

What constitutes ‘ivory’?

Ivory, for the purposes of the Ivory Act, at present means the material from the tusks of elephants. In 2023, though, the UK government announced that in due course the prohibition will be extended to include ivory from:

  • walruses
  • narwhals
  • killer whales
  • hippopotamuses
  • sperm whales

At the moment if our ivory keys derive from any of those animals listed, we'll be free to sell. However, given the impending ban it may not be advisable to. Further, if we aren't sure of the animal origin of our ivory, it may be safest to assume it's from an elephant. The consequences of breaching the act are quite severe.

What could the consequences be?

The Ivory Act 2018 creates a criminal offence if you do deal in elephant ivory. Breaching the act could result in:

  • a maximum five-year term in prison; and/or
  • an unlimited fine

There are also potential civil sanctions available to the Secretary of State. These grant the ability to impose a penalty of up to £250,000, and/or to impose stop notices, enforcement undertakings and enforcement recovery notices. The act applies to individuals, companies and officers of companies. An offence will be committed by someone who knows or suspects, or ought to know or suspect, that the item concerned is ivory, made of ivory or has ivory in it.

What are the exemptions?

If the above sounds rather harsh and unyielding, well, it is – it's been the stated aim of the government to make it so. Still, there are exemptions available if the item meets the following specific criteria:

  • pre-1918 items of outstanding artistic, cultural or historical value and importance
  • pre-1918 portrait miniatures with a total surface area of no more than 320 square centimetres
  • items made before 3 March 1947 with less than 10% ivory
  • pre-1975 musical instruments with less than 20% ivory
  • sales and loans to and between accredited museums

You can apply for an exemption certificate (for pre-1918 items of outstanding artistic, cultural or historical value and importance), or for registration under a standard exemption (in all other cases). In certain circumstances you can register a set of objects as a single item. Once the certificate or registration is confirmed you'll then be able to deal with the ivory without breaching the act.

At the moment it costs £20 to register a single eligible item under a standard exemption, and £250 to apply for an exemption certificate if you have a historically valuable pre-1918 ivory piece. It's possible for an application to fail, so as much detail and evidence as possible must be provided.

In the case of our ivory-keyed piano, assuming it was made before 1975, if the keys are the only ivory part, it will likely have less than 20% ivory, and so we should make an application to register it. Once registered we'll be able to sell it without breaching the act. If we find more ivory (an inlay, say), or evidence that it was made after 1975, we should instead keep it to gift or bequeath – or perhaps we could take up piano lessons again!


If you have an item made of ivory and are wondering how to treat it, you can see above that the law is quite severe. The consequences of making incorrect assumptions are serious. Our team of experts are on hand to advise you and help you navigate this tricky area. Please do get in touch if you'd like to discuss this with us.

Our content explained

Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

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