Ivory smuggling lands Philly store owner in prison

These items were among the one ton of elephant ivory agents seized during a smuggling investigation of Victor Gordon Enterprises in Old City.

A Philadelphia store owner was sentenced Wednesday to 30 months in prison for smuggling elephant ivory into the country.

Victor Gordon, 71, of Penn Valley in Lower Merion, was also ordered to forfeit $150,000, along with about a ton of elephant ivory that agents seized from his Old City African art store, Victor Gordon Enterprises, in April 2009. The government believes Gordon's illegal ivory collection to be the largest uncovered by law enforcement in the U.S. to date, according to court filings.

Gordon acquired more than 400 pieces of carved elephant ivory, worth about $800,000, over a period of at least nine years, prosecutors said. On four occasions, beginning in 2006, he paid a smuggler to bring in ivory directly from Gabon, Africa, secretly bringing it into the United States through John F. Kennedy Airport.

In some instances, Gordon stained the ivory and created false receipts to make it appear as though it had been lawfully acquired before 1989, when U.S. and international law imposed regulations on ivory importation. 

Federal prosecutors, in a sentencing memorandum, called the case “one of the most significant and egregious examples of an individual violating the laws against trafficking in elephant ivory that has come before a court for sentencing in the United States.” 

Gordon sold tens of thousands of dollars of carved ivory through his store at 31 N. Third St. Before the 2009 raid, he was also trying to sell the entire business, including the ivory collection, for $20 million, prosecutors said. He allegedly told some prospective buyers that he wanted the artifacts to be enshrined in a museum of African art. 

Federal investigators were led to Victor Gordon Enterprises after some of the defendants in a separate ivory-smuggling case said they sold their goods to Gordon. 

Agents conducting surveillance of the store in 2009 saw Gordon buying what appeared to be African art from the back of a cargo van on the street nearby, according to court documents.

A search warrant executed April 2 revealed “a massive quantity of carved elephant ivory” in the store’s rear office and basement, including about 313 tusks and carvings, court filings state.

Investigators found on the basement floor large elephant tusks that had been sawed into pieces and were in the process of being glued back together again, prosecutors said. Agents noted in court filings that ivory tusks are generally cut in an attempt to make them easier to smuggle through customs, as the act decreases the material’s market value. 

Officials the next day seized 115 more ivory carvings and tusks from the building’s second and third floors, prosecutors said. No legal import or export permits were found for any of the 428 ivory pieces recovered.

Two ivory masks found in the store matched artifacts smuggled from Douala, Cameroon, court documents state. The masks were intercepted and cataloged at the Port of Newark in January 2008, then placed back into their shipping container and delivered for investigative purposes, according to the government's sentencing memorandum.

An African art expert retained by the government concluded that 86 percent of the seized ivory was carved during the 1990s or later. The expert was unable to determine the age of the remaining 14 percent of the ivory but found it was likely of recent origin, court filings state.

Gordon was federally charged in July 2011 and pleaded guilty in September 2012 to an information charging him with smuggling elephant ivory.

In a sentencing memorandum filed by his defense attorney, Gordon argued for a non-custodial penalty, noting that he has never before been in trouble with the law and that he did not injure anyone in committing the smuggling crimes. The filing also cited the “tremendous financial, emotional, and reputational impact” of the “highly publicized prosecution” as punishment enough. 

“Between March and April 2009, I purchased ivory that I knew had been imported into the United States contrary to law,” Gordon admitted in a statement included in the memorandum. “I know I was wrong and stand before you in disgrace.”

Still, Gordon said, he only sold ivory pieces he didn’t consider to be of “museum quality” and never profited from the transactions because his driving desire was to sell the entire collection for inclusion in an African art museum, then donate the funds to cancer research.

“After the search of the store, the seizures therein and speaking with my attorney, I realize the gravamen of my actions and wrong headedness of my dreams,” he said.

But the prosecution, in its sentencing memorandum, said Gordon’s admission “hardly reflects a whole-hearted and honest acknowledgment of wrongdoing,” calling his acceptance of responsibility “faltering, at best.” 

The government further noted that Gordon was not driven to commit the crimes by financial hardship, as his net worth was $1.9 million, even after surrendering his ivory collection and paying the $150,000 judgment.

The prosecution called Gordon’s purported vision of establishing an African art museum “nothing more than a ruse designed to avoid paying taxes and to put more money in the defendant’s pocket.”

Gordon's sentence marks the close of an eight-year investigation into illegal elephant ivory importation that has yielded nine convictions for smuggling and related offenses, prosecutors said. 

“The illicit trade in elephant ivory has created an environmental crisis in Africa and is fueling the development of organized criminal groups around the world,” U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, of the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement. “For this reason, the United States has committed itself, through international treaties and domestic law, to preventing the flow of illegal ivory through and within our borders."

Contact Alex Wigglesworth at 215-854-2305 or awigglesworth@philly.com. Follow @phila_lex on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.