The owner of a La Jolla gallery and a salesman charged with illegally selling ivory art works valued at more than $1.3 million entered not guilty pleas through an attorney in San Diego Superior Court on Thursday.
Carlton Gallery owner Victor Hyman Cohen and salesman Sheldon Miles Kupersmith are charged with a combined total of 12 misdemeanor counts of purchasing or selling ivory and 12 misdemeanor counts of importing, possessing or selling parts of an elephant.
If convicted, they could face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $40,000 on each of the ivory-related counts and six months in jail with a fine up up to $5,000 on each elephant parts-related counts.
Cohen and Kupersmith did not appear in court.
Defense attorney James Dicks, representing both men and Carlton Gallery, said prosecutors have made an offer to settle the case. The terms of the offer were not disclosed.
Deputy City Attorney Patricia Miranda told Judge Paula Rosenstein if the settlement is not accepted by Feb. 5 “then the offer with be withdrawn.”
Out of court, Dicks said Cohen didn’t know he was breaking state law against trade in ivory from elephants and other species.
“He bought the stuff legally; he had no idea it was illegal,” Dicks said. “The pieces were in a display window. He’s been in business for 30 years, with a clean record.”
The state law that bans the sale or possession of nearly all ivory, to protect elephants from poachers, was authored by state Sen. Toni Atkins and took effect on July 1, 2016.
The seizure at Carlton Gallery and warehouse was the largest since the law went into effect in 2016, City Attorney Mara Elliott said at a Nov. 28 news conference.
Officials said state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials saw two art deco-style sculptures that appeared to be made of ivory in the window at Carlton Gallery a year ago.
On May 1, agency officers working undercover bought one ivory sculpture from Kupersmith, who offered to sell three more pieces, the City Attorney said.
Officers then got a search warrant for the gallery and a warehouse, turning up 338 artworks made with allegedly illegal elephant ivory or hippopotamus teeth.
The value of the items was estimated at more than $1.3 million, prosecutors said.
Each year, poachers slaughter tens of thousands of African elephants to get ivory from their tusks, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund.
Beth Hill, an animal activist with Nsefu Wildlife Conservation Foundation, attended the court hearing. She said she and nearly a dozen other activists have picketed outside Carlton Gallery each weekend since the charges were announced.
She said they have handed leaflets to passersby and persuaded some potential shoppers to not enter the gallery.