National Geographic : 2012 Oct
he says, "too much is not enough. As a priest, I've been praying, 'If all of this stu is plain stu- pid, then God, put a stop to this.' " Father Jay points to a Santo Niño holding a dove. "Most of the old ivories are heirlooms," he says. " e new ones are from Africa. ey come in through the back door." In other words, they're smuggled. "It's like straightening up a crooked line: You buy the ivory, which came from a hazy origin, and you turn it into a spiritual item. See?" he says, with a giggle. His voice lowers to a whis- per. "Because it's like buying a stolen item." People should buy new ivory icons, he says, to avoid swindlers who use tea or even Coca-Cola to stain ivory to look antique. "I just tell them to buy the new ones, so the history of an image would start in you." When I ask how new ivory gets to the Philip- pines, he tells me that Muslims from the south- ern island of Mindanao smuggle it in. en, to signal a bribe, he puts two ngers into my shirt pocket. "To the coast guards, for example," he says. "Imagine from Africa to Europe and to the Philippines. How long is that kind of trip by boat?" He puts his ngers in my pocket again. "And you just keep on paying so many people so that it will enter your country." It's part of one's sacri ce to the Santo Niño--- smuggling elephant ivory as an act of devotion. I had no illusions of linking Monsignor Garcia to any illegal activity, but when I told him I wanted an ivory Santo Niño, the man surprised me. "You will have to smuggle it to get it into the U.S." "How?" "Wrap it in old, stinky underwear and pour ketchup on it," he said. "So it looks shitty with blood. is is how it is done." Garcia gave me the names of his favorite ivory carvers, all in Manila, along with advice on whom to go to for high volume, whose wife overcharges, who doesn't meet deadlines. He gave me phone numbers and locations. If I wanted to smuggle an icon that was too large to hide in my suitcase, I might get a certi cate from the National Museum of the Philippines declaring my image to be antique, or I could get a carver to issue a paper declaring it to be imita- tion or alter the carving date to before the ivory ban. Whatever I decided to commission, Garcia promised to bless it for me. "Unlike those animal- nut priests who will not bless ivory," he said. A few families control most of the ivory carv- ing in Manila, moving like termites through mas- sive quantities of tusks. Two of the main dealers are based in the city's religious-supplies district, Tayuman. During my ve trips to the Philippines I visited every one of the ivory shops Garcia rec- ommended to me and more, inquiring about buying ivory. More than once I was asked if I was a priest. In almost every shop someone proposed a way I could smuggle ivory to the U.S. One of- fered to paint my ivory with removable brown watercolor to resemble wood; another to make identical hand-painted statuettes out of resin to camou age my ivory baby Jesus. If I was caught, I was told to lie and say "resin" to U.S. Customs. During one visit a dealer said Monsignor Garcia had just called and suggested that since I'd men- tioned that my family had a funeral business, I might take her new, -pound Santo Niño home by hiding it in the bottom of a casket. I said he must have been joking, but she didn't think so. Priests, balikbayans (Filipinos living over- seas), and gay Filipino men are major custom- ers, according to Manila's most prominent ivory dealer. An antique dealer from New York City makes regular buying missions, as does a deal- er from Mexico City, gathering up new ivory ALTHOUGH THE WORLD HAS SUBSTITUTES FOR ALL OF IVORY'S PRACTICAL USES, ITS RELIGIOUS USE IS FROZEN IN AMBER.