LONG ISLAND CITY — An owner and salesman from a local art gallery are facing charges after illegally selling a sculpture made with elephant ivory to undercover investigators last month, according to the Queens District Attorney's office — though the pair's lawyer says the transgression was unintentional.
Robert Rogal, 70, the owner of Ro Gallery at 47-15 36th St., and salesman Jaime Villamarin, 45, were arraigned Friday on two violations of the state's Environmental Conservation Law after selling the ivory sculpture of a ballerina for $2,612 cash, prosecutors said.
New York has largely banned the sale of elephant and mammoth ivory and rhinoceros horns, with limited exceptions, since 2014 in an effort to protect wildlife.
Selling more than $1,500 worth of products made from ivory requires a license or permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and doing so without one is a felony, officials said.
Undercover agents from the DEC first made an appointment at Ro Gallery on May 30, where they met with Villamarin, who showed them two sculptures that he acknowledged were made with elephant ivory, according to the DA's office.
"These are ivory, but we don’t list them as such because you can’t sell ivory," Villamarin told the undercover investigators, officials said.
The agents returned to the gallery on June 14, when they met with Rogal and purchased the ballerina sculpture from him, prosecutors said.
Rogal then showed them another piece that cost $3,600, telling the undercover investigators, "I believe it is ivory” and "they don’t even allow the sale of them,” according to the Queens DA.
An expert examined the purchased ballerina statue and confirmed it was made with real ivory, and a search warrant executed at the gallery on July 6 yielded several other sculptures made with the material, prosecutors said.
"Illegally selling artifacts made from the ivory tusks of threatened elephants will not be tolerated in Queens County," Queens DA Richard Brown said in a statement.
"Buyers of such items should also be especially cautious and only buy from licensed retailers. Otherwise, they may be indirectly contributing to the extinction of one of the world’s most magnificent animals — the elephant."
An attorney representing Rogal and Villamarin said Wednesday his clients are not "major players involved in the illegal ivory trade" but merely employees at a gallery that's been in the neighborhood for decades.
"Mr. Rogal is an art dealer, and if he sold an item of art that contained ivory it was done unknowingly and without any intention to violate the laws which protect wildlife," lawyer John D. Pappalardo said in a statement.
The ballerina sculpture — which Pappalardo describes as just over 7 inches tall and most likely made in the early 1900s — is mostly made of bronze metal, he explained.
"If the statue contains ivory it would amount to only a small fraction (less than 20%) of the total sculpture," the attorney said.
He denied that the other items seized from the gallery were proven to contain ivory, and said other pieces "were not for sale and were possessed legally by the gallery."
"The state's case against Mr. Rogal is, at best, a matter of being properly licensed to sell artwork which may contain a small amount of ivory," Pappalardo said. "Neither Mr. Rogal nor anyone at the RoGallery wishes to contribute to the exploitation and further hunting of any vulnerable or endangered species."
The defendants are due back in court on Aug. 29, and both face up to four years in prison if convicted, according to the DA's office.