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Unique Ivory Artefacts’ Seizure Triggers Legal Row

Form-filling errors can have devastating consequences, as an international transport company found out when it was left to carry the financial can after a unique set of ivory artefacts were seized by customs officers en route to Christie’s in London.

The 12 Japanese ‘inro’ works – dating to the 19th Century and worn as ornaments on Japanese women’s belts – were seized at Heathrow in pursuit of the international ban on the ivory trade. The immediate cause of the seizure was that certain parts of the relevant importation form had been left blank and unstamped.

Christie’s subsequently launched a claim against the transport company which was settled by the latter paying more that £146,000 to the owner of the items. On that basis, the company claimed that it had obtained good title to the artefacts and asked Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to review the seizure decision.

That request was refused and, on appeal to the First-Tier Tribunal, the company argued that, given the significance of the artefacts which were of exceptional rarity and quality, it was wrong that they should remain in the custody of HMRC on the basis of what was merely ‘a minor administrative error’.

However, in dismissing the company’s appeal, the Tribunal noted its ‘inordinate delay’ – of more than 600 days – in seeking restoration of the items. The company had not pursued its case ‘with any diligence’ and had also failed to demonstrate that it was in fact the rightful owner of the artefacts.

The Tribunal noted that the artefacts were ‘safely in the hands’ of the Crown, which was bound by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna and could properly be entrusted with the decision on what should now be done with them.