La Jolla gallery charged with selling $1.3M in illegal ivory

SAN DIEGO -- The Carlton Gallery in La Jolla, its owner and an employee are facing criminal charges for allegedly trafficking $1.3 million in illegal ivory, San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott announced Wednesday.

Elliott's office has been investigating the Carlton Gallery since May 2017 and performed a sting operation on the business on May 1 of this year, with the help of wildlife officers from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Officers seized 146 items containing ivory from the gallery and 192 from a nearby warehouse during the sting, authorities said. In addition to the gallery itself, gallery owner Victor Hyman Cohen and salesman Sheldon Miles Kupersmith, who allegedly sold ivory to undercover officers, were charged as individuals.

"Ivory trafficking is an illegal and reprehensible business that encourages the senseless slaughter of elephants and other endangered species," Elliott said. "I hope this prosecution sends a strong message to anyone who sells or is thinking about selling ivory on the black market in San Diego: We will find you and prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. I want to thank our partners at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for uncovering this crime in our city."

The gallery was open for business on Wednesday. FOX 5 spoke with the owner and asked for his response to the charges. He declined to appear on camera, but he said that the charges are the result of a "misunderstanding."

California banned virtually all ivory sales in 2016 via a state law authored by Sen. Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. The ban includes the teeth and tusks of elephants, hippopotamuses, mammoths, mastodons, walruses, warthogs, whales and narwhals and rhinoceros horns.

According to the City Attorney's Office, a majority of the seized items contained ivory from elephants and some contained ivory from hippopotamus teeth.

"Seizing more than 300 pieces of ivory as evidence valued in excess of $1.3 million is representative of innumerable elephants and other species of wildlife poached for their ivory," said David Bess, deputy director and chief of law enforcement for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. "With the authority granted by the legislature just a few years ago to prohibit trade of ivory and rhinoceros horn, and with the assistance of the San Diego City Attorney's Office, our team is making progress to stop the trade of ivory here in California."

Under state law, a first-time offense of the ban is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $40,000. Kupersmith was charged with eight counts of the purchase and sale of ivory and rhinoceros horn and eight counts of the unlawful importing, possession and sale of a specified species. Cohen and the Carlton Gallery are charged with 11 counts of each.