The kolinsky weasel, from whose fur kolinsky sable brushes are made, is a midsized creature found in plentiful numbers in China and Russia. But the tale I’m about to tell begins in India—with mongooses and snakes. It’s a tale that explains why kolinsky sable brushes had been—and may again become—difficult to obtain in the United States.
Kolinsky Weasel Identify Theft
Snakes thrive in India. The mongoose is India’s sole natural predator of snakes. If you live in India, you’re probably rooting for the mongoose, and you have the government on your side. Some fur hunters, however, find the protected status of the mongoose to be a nuisance. They get around it by misidentifying mongoose fur as kolinsky weasel fur—even though kolinsky weasels don’t live in India. Enter the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which India is a member.
CITES Monitors Kolinsky Weasels
As a countermove against unscrupulous hunters of the mongoose, CITES agreed to put the kolinsky weasel, a victim of identity theft, on a list of monitored animals. This is the lowest-level list created by CITES; it doesn’t include endangered species or even threatened species, but species for which at least one of CITES’s member countries has requested assistance in controlling trade.
Kolinsky Sables Meet Red Tape
The CITE’s classification of the kolinsky weasel doesn’t prohibit the hunting, buying or selling of the weasel’s fur or the kolinsky sable brushes made from that fur, but it does necessitate documentation. Technically, in order for an importer to bring kolinsky weasel hair or kolinsky sable brushes into a CITES member country, the importer must have a certificate of export from the country of origin. This requirement introduces a tangled ball of red tape. The country of origin (in this case, either China or Russia) won’t issue a certificate of export unless certain requirements are met and information is provided, such as the name of the hunter (who must be licensed) and the date or period when the hunter procured the animal. Records of kilos bought and sold must be kept. Most hunters and brokers in China and Russia aren’t willing or able to deal with the paperwork and bureaucracy that has sprung up around kolinsky weasels. They either turn their attention to other animals or they sell their kolinsky weasel hair to European countries that don’t require certificates of export.
The European Difference
So you may ask, “Aren’t European countries members of CITES?” Yes, they are, but their governments recognize that CITES’s classification of the kolinsky weasel was never meant to apply to exports from China or Russia, where the real kolinsky weasels are found. The United States government doesn’t make such exceptions to CITES classifications. “Okay,” you may say, “so why don’t U.S. brush companies buy kolinsky weasel hair or kolinsky sable brushes from Europe?” Ah, but CITES also requires a certificate of re-export from the country that bought the hair from the country of origin—and you can’t have a certificate of re-export unless you have a certificate of export. American companies could buy the hair or brushes in Europe, but they couldn’t bring either into the U.S. And now you’re probably thinking, “What if I, as a consumer rather than a company, go to Europe or England to buy my kolinsky weasel hair or kolinsky sable brushes?” That’s fine, but you’ll still need certificates of export and re-export to bring your brushes into the U.S, just as a brush manufacturer or distributor would.
Confiscation of Kolinsky Sables
Now it happens that until 2013, importers were able to use certificates of export and re-export that had been obtained a while back—let’s say, for the sake of discussion, 10 to 12 years ago. The certificates don’t expire, but they do designate a limited number of kilos that may be traded—let’s say 10,000, again, for the sake of discussion. In 2013, however, an alert official of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services realized that the designated quantity of kilos on any existing certificates must have been surpassed. The Service confiscated a large shipment of kolinsky sable brushes, and imports into the U.S. of kolinsky weasel hair and kolinsky sable brushes stopped.
U.S. Imports Re-Open
In the latter part of 2014, against rather large odds, two new certificates of export were obtained, one from China and one from Russia, and the import of kolinsky weasel hair and kolinsky sable brushes once again resumed in the U.S. These certificates, like the old certificates, have no expiration date, but, like the old certificates, they do designate a cap on the quantity of hair that can be traded. As of the writing of this article (May 2015), artists can buy kolinsky sable brushes in the U. S. No problem. But for what length of time will the opportunity last? Will U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services again clamp down on the trade? If so, when will the current supply of brushes and hair disappear? In the meantime, will U.S. brush companies be able to negotiate a less precarious trade understanding? Only time will tell.
Holly Davis wishes to thank to Tom Dix, president of Global Art Materials, and Howard Kaufman, president of Princeton Artists Brush Co. for their assistance with this article.
- “A Bevy of Brushes” (Magazine, November 2010): two watercolor artists and two oil artists discuss their favorite brushes.
- The Best of Splash: Watercolor Lover’s Value Pack
- Thomas Schaller’s Capturing Light in Watercolor Ultimate Collection
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