Judge to rule in ivory case

Charles Manghis has been described as being devoted to the folk art of scrimshaw, sculpting from the ivory of sperm whale teeth. He awaits sentencing for buying ivory from smugglers. Charles Manghis has been described as being devoted to the folk art of scrimshaw, sculpting from the ivory of sperm whale teeth. He awaits sentencing for buying ivory from smugglers. (Rob Benchley)
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / August 1, 2011

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The dealer, a 39-year-old Ukrainian man, was convicted, sentenced, and deported earlier this year after he admitted to smuggling sperm whale teeth - their precious ivory - into the United States in violation of animal protection laws.

And today, a federal court judge is scheduled to decide the fate of his key customer, a Nantucket man who said he used the ivory solely for his artwork, but who was found guilty of buying from a black market that prosecutors say has helped to fuel illegal poaching of animals for their ivory.

It is a case that has pitted Charles Manghis and his devotion to a form of folk art called scrimshaw, dating back to Nantucket’s whaling heyday, against federal antismuggling and wildlife protection laws to discourage poaching.

“He is not a smuggler by trade; he’s not a reseller or a dealer of ivory,’’ said Max Stern, an attorney for Manghis, at a hearing last week. “He has obtained ivory for art, and he uses it as his medium.’’

But critics say Manghis went too far.

“There’s a reason we don’t hunt the whales the same way, we don’t use the products the same way - people don’t live that way anymore,’’ Assistant US Attorney Nadine Pellegrini said during the emotionally charged sentencing hearing in federal court last week. She raised pictures showing the use of animals for commercial products, including a hat of mallard feathers from a century ago.

“There isn’t anything as beautiful as the animal, the mammal, the bird [alive] in the wild.’’

Prosecutors did not show any evidence that Manghis, 55, obtained ivory that was taken from an animal after the wildlife protection laws of the early 1970s, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which banned the sales of whale teeth and other forms of ivory to discourage poaching.

But he allegedly conspired with the Ukrainian dealer to buy whale teeth in several deals between July 2002 and June 2005, violating the protection acts. Many of the teeth originated in Russia, which has become known as a source of smuggled ivory.

Prosecutors said that the smuggling of ivory, whether it was originally obtained lawfully or unlawfully, will encourage demand on black markets, with Pellegrini describing stockpiles of elephants hunted for their tusks in African countries. Authorities during their investigation seized 375 whale teeth, along with pieces of elephant ivory, from Manghis’s home and from several of his buyers, in one of the largest cases of its kind.

The conservation group Care for the Wild International names the United States as the second-largest ivory market in the world, after China.

“Stop the demand for it, because that’s what keeps the species safe,’’ Pellegrini said.

Manghis was convicted in a jury-waived trial last year of conspiracy, six counts of smuggling, and two counts of making false statements in relation to illegally buying the ivory, from the Ukrainian smuggler Andriy Mikhalyov and from Internet sources. Mikhalyov was sentenced to nine months in federal prison and was then deported as part of a plea agreement.

Prosecutors asked that Manghis serve at least five months in a federal prison followed by five years of home confinement, along with a $200,000 fine. They also asked that he post a full-page ad in an industry newspaper acknowledging his disgrace.

Defense lawyers argue that he should serve no jail time, that his disgrace and the stain of his name among neighbors in Nantucket should be his only punishment.

US District Judge Nancy Gertner postponed any sentencing decision until she could better research legal issues in the case. Prosecutors, for instance, say that sentencing guidelines should be based on the potential resale value of the ivory, as much as $65,000, while his lawyers say the guidelines should be based on what he paid for the ivory, just under $10,000.

Also, prosecutors have asked Gertner to consider the collection of ivory that Manghis had, while defense lawyers argue that she should only base her decision on the ivory that was listed under the indictment and that was proven to be smuggled.

“It is necessary for them to prove all that ivory is illegal,’’ said Stern, arguing that much of the collection came from lawful means. “We’re dealing with someone who has been collecting ivory for 40 years.’’

Manghis earned thousands of dollars for some of his etchings and had been commissioned to carve the presidential seal into whale teeth for both Bush presidents.

At the least, Stern said, Manghis’s reputation has been scarred.

The investigation ensnared not only Manghis and Mikhalyov, but also an antiques dealer who was also convicted of smuggling and trafficking sperm whale teeth. David L. Place, owner of Manor House Antiques Cooperative in Nantucket, was sentenced in March to nearly three years in prison.

But the three men have found little sympathy within the local artist community, with artists saying that even though ivory is tougher to obtain, it is still available, and there is no need to use the black market.

“People in the business don’t cross that line if they want to stay in business,’’ said Michael Vienneau, a Nantucket scrimshander who runs his own gallery on the island. “It is either greed or arrogance or both that leads people to want to go ahead and do that.’’

“You don’t have to import it,’’ he added. “There are enough old pieces to keep people involved.’’

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia