On July 25, 2021, Pedro Huertas, an American doctor who was attempting to cross from Canada into the United States at the border crossing in Highgate Springs, Vermont, told a border guard that he was bringing with him a stone statue of ‘worth $2,000.
A search of his vehicle revealed nine packets of bubbles of varying sizes, one long and thin, others small, according to a criminal complaint filed in a US court. When border guards asked Huertas what was inside, he and his wife did not answer their questions.
Three of the statues, American authorities later learned, were carved from sperm whale teeth and another from a walrus tusk. The border guards seized them.
CITES, which restricts the sale of products made from protected species, along with other country-specific laws, make it difficult, if not impossible, to leave Canada with products made from whales, walruses and seals, even if they are sculptures made from animals. legally hunted by the Inuit or from bones that have remained on the tundra or on the shore for years.
Huertas wanted the statues back, and a few days later he presented authorities with documents, including official certificates of authenticity, purporting to show that the objects were decades old, a fact that, if true, could have allow him to keep them. and avoid fees.
It was not true. According to U.S. District Court documents, they were drawn up at Huertas’ request by the art gallery where he purchased the sculptures – Images Boréales, a prominent Inuit art gallery in Old Montreal.
Huertas was charged in the United States with knowingly importing parts of an endangered species without the proper permits. The owner and an employee of Images Boréales also face charges here in Canada for allegedly falsifying documents and possessing sperm whale teeth.
The laws that Huertas and Images Boréales are accused of breaking exist to prevent the sale and export of products from endangered species. They are celebrated by some environmental advocates, even if Inuit artists denounce them as too restrictive. Some Inuit art enthusiasts abroad will do anything to acquire pieces made from whale bone and walrus ivory.
At Images Boréales, on Saint-Paul Street, in the heart of Old Montreal, a busy tourist area, soapstone sculptures sit on glass shelves next to sculptures made of whale bone and walrus ivory.
But selling such items, particularly to Americans and tourists from outside Canada, is complicated.
A necessary inconvenience
Some conservationists say that while many fans of Inuit art may find the import rules onerous or harsh, they are necessary to ensure the animals are not killed for their tusks and bones.
Barry Kent Mackay, director of the Animal Alliance of Canada, said treaties like CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – are needed.
The laws are there to protect animals even if they bother people, “including a sculptor from the Far North, or an art gallery in Montreal or an American who wants a decoration on his coffee table”, because they contribute to ensure that animals are not gratuitously killed for the price of their body parts.
“The higher the demand, the greater the incentive to eliminate these animals,” Kent said. “The only way to guarantee that artisans will have something to carve is to protect the walrus, to prevent its disappearance.”
Working with deliberate precision in his studio in Belleville, Ontario, Inuit hunter and artist Ruben Anton Komangapik uses hand tools to dig a trench into a piece of whale bone.
The enormous mammal died decades ago. Fresh whale bone is saturated with oil and cannot be carved. Artists often work with bones that have remained on a beach for years, exposed to the elements – sometimes for more than a century – victims of whalers who hunted these animals for their oil.
But Komangapik says he will struggle to sell the finished sculpture that emerges from the whale bone because of export restrictions.
“It’s really difficult because as an artist you pretty much live room by room,” he said.
Theresie Tungilik, an Inuit artist and president and spokesperson for CARFAC, a union that represents the interests of Canadian artists, has spoken out against the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), a U.S. law that restricts the importation of manufactured products from whales, seals. and walruses, among other animals.
She recently circulated a petition, signed by other artists, calling for changes to the MMPA to allow Inuit artists to sell their work in the American market. The restrictions are hurting Inuit artists’ ability to sell their work and make money, she said.
“We hunt the animal not only for its bones and ivory, but also because we need food,” she said, “and it’s a big plus when a walrus has a tusk and “it can be transformed into a work of art”.
Komangapik said Inuit carvers sometimes face pressure from artist cooperatives to use other materials and avoid using bone or ivory because those items are harder to sell.
But that never stopped him. Working with whale bones reminds him of his grandfather, who was also a sculptor, he said.
“Every time I carve it,” he says, “its smell, its touch and everything associated with it, I feel like I’m visiting it.”
“They can’t buy it.”
Sculptures made from whale bone and walrus ivory have piled up in warehouses in southern Canada, purchased by cooperatives that market the works carved by northern artists on world markets.
Since parts made from marine mammals generally cannot be exported, they end up on shelves and in warehouses.
RJ Ramrattan, executive director of Canadian Arctic Producers (CAP), a cooperative that pays, promotes and sells Inuit artists for their work around the world, describes the sale of artwork made from whale bone and ivory like a “nightmare”.
Some export licenses require details of how the animal was killed which are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain for some of the pieces carved by Inuit artists.
For example, in the case of a decades-old sculpture carved from a piece of whale bone that has been outside since the early 20th century, it would be difficult to prove where and how an animal was killed , and how the artist acquired it. especially if the artist is dead.
“I have many, many American customers who come to the galleries,” Ramrattan said. “They like bone, they like whale bone, they like walrus ivory…but they can’t buy it.”
Despite the headaches that often accompany trying to sell and export a piece of Inuit art made from bone or ivory, some art dealers see the need for these restrictions.
“I understand the idea. The idea is to protect,” said John Houston, owner and director of the Houston North Gallery, which sells Inuit art, and an Arctic filmmaker. “If someone says, ‘Oh wow, I’m going to carve a lot of walrus ivory, which means I’m going to kill a whole ton of walruses,’ well, we don’t want that.”
When a gallery circumvents export restrictions, it could lead to increased scrutiny of the entire sector, he said, and ultimately harm the industry.
“What good is going to come from this? Either things stay as they are and someone settles for a fine, or it’s quite possible that (the authorities) end up saying ‘we’re going to have to tighten this up ‘”.
Houston said he would love to have access to the U.S. market, where Inuit art lovers are willing to pay top dollar for sculptures made from whale bone and walrus ivory. But the obstacles posed by export restrictions are too restrictive.
Huertas, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in October to a misdemeanor charge of knowingly importing parts of an endangered species into the United States and, after a plea deal that kept him out of prison, agreed to pay a $50,000 fine. The court also ordered the confiscation of the four ivory sculptures.
Now, Matthew Namour, owner of Images Boréales, and one of his employees, Imene Mansour, are due to appear in a Montreal court on December 4 to answer charges that they violated regulations and the protection of animals and animals. International Wild Plants and Interprovincial Trade Act. They have not yet entered a plea.
Mansour, Namour and the gallery were charged with possessing sperm whale teeth, which are part of an endangered species, with the intent to sell or distribute them. Mansour and the gallery are accused of presenting false documents to authorities. If guilty, they face a minimum fine of $5,000 or a maximum of six months in prison, or both.
Through a lawyer, they declined to answer questions, saying the proceedings were still early. The U.S. criminal complaint against Huertas alleges that Mansour falsified documents in Huertas’ name. These allegations remain to be proven in criminal proceedings in Canada.