Treasure: Material now makes piece difficult to sell

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

‘My father gave me this from the Kingdom of Benin (I think). It is supposedly a National Treasure that he got in the 1960s,” Bruce Burwitz wrote in an email to the column requesting more information and a current value of his sculpture. “I have included some pictures. I was hoping you could tell me if it is worth anything and if so how do I go about selling it?”

Hoping for answers, Burwitz brought the arresting bust of a man with a mustache and beard wearing a necklace of what looks shells and a dramatic headpiece to a recent appraisal session held at DuMouchelle auction house and art gallery in downtown Detroit. There, expert Bob DuMouchelle took a closer look at the distinctive piece.

“It’s supposedly an African treasure and has been locked up for 50 years in a box,” Burwitz told DuMouchelle. “My dad gave it to me and I thought, ‘what do I do with it now?’” Burwitz told him that he thinks his dad picked up it somewhere on one of his journeys.

Unfortunately for Burwitz, DuMouchelle had one word for him: “Ivory.” “This is definitely ivory,” the appraiser told him. “You can see the cracks here that indicate the material. Ivory tends to crack and it can be real problem. Some people keep a cup of water near ivory pieces for moisture. The problem is if it’s a big cup and you forget to refill it, that’s almost worse than not doing it at all. It’s like a sugar crash for a diabetic. Steady humidity is better than the ups and downs.”

The larger problem, DuMouchelle said, is the material itself, which has been the subject of many embargoes and restrictions through the years in an effort to protect elephants and stop rampant poaching. “In the 1980s they tried to put an embargo on ivory, but what happened is that they did it so slowly that huge quantities were shipped in,” he explained. “Recently laws have been changing again, as is the Asian market, which wants its ivory back. It’s creating a huge demand there. The laws go back and forth. More recently, there’s been an effort here in the U.S. to make it all illegal to stop demand, so we’ve been staying away from it.”

That means Burwitz would have trouble selling the piece at DuMouchelles and possibly at other places. “It’s just not something we want to get involved in anymore,” DuMouchelle told him.

Burwitz hoped DuMouchelle would be able to give him more information on the piece, even if he couldn’t sell it. “Is it an old piece?” he asked the appraiser. Unfortunately, DuMouchelle had bad news on that front as well. “This is definitely a 20th-century piece,” he told him. “I’d date it to the 1950s or 1960s.

“At this point, with all the laws, you can own it but you can’t sell it,” DuMouchelle continued. “What about in other countries?” asked Burwitz, but DuMouchelle told him that selling there could violate international trade agreements. “It’s really a moving target,” he told him. He said he wasn’t even sure about whether Burwitz could donate it, but said that a call to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s local office or checking their national website (fws.gov) could help clarify his options. Burwitz’s paperwork from his father identified the piece as being from Biafra, a secessionist state from 1967 to 1970 in southeast Nigeria, information which prompted one last suggestion from DuMouchelle.

“Depending on what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says, you might consider donating it to a local museum,” he said.

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to trashortreas@aol.com. If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.

About This Item

Item : Ivory bust

Owned by : Bruce Burwitz

Appraised by: Bob DuMouchelle, DuMouchelles

Estimated value : Undetermined