The owner of Carlton Gallery in La Jolla and an employee who were caught in a sting operation with $1.3 million in illegal ivory sculptures pleaded guilty Tuesday in the state’s largest ivory trafficking case, the city attorney’s office said.
Owner Victor Hyman Cohen admitted to 11 misdemeanor counts and salesman Sheldon Miles Kupersmith admitted to eight counts involving violation of a 2016 law banning the sale of ivory products in California.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Michael Groch sentenced the pair immediately, imposing a fine of $75,000 each for Cohen and the gallery. Kupersmith was fined $60,000.
They also were ordered to complete 200 hours of public service at the San Diego Zoo.
The men were placed on probation for three years, with the condition that if they violate the terms of probation, they could go to jail for a year and pay an additional $100,000 in fines, the city attorney’s office said.
The fines are the largest ever imposed for ivory trafficking in California, according to a statement from prosecutors.
“I hope this conviction sends a clear message to anyone considering engaging in the ivory black market, as a buyer or a seller,” City Atty. Mara Elliott said in the statement.
“If you try to make a buck from the brutal slaughter of endangered species, you will be prosecuted and held accountable for your crimes.”
The investigation into Carlton Gallery began in December 2017 when a Department of Fish and Wildlife officer noticed ivory sculptures in the window of the Prospect Avenue shop.
Undercover officers with the wildlife agency set up a sting operation in May 2018 and bought one ivory art piece. Kupersmith was alleged to have offered to sell them three more items.
Going back to the store with a search warrant, authorities eventually recovered 338 art pieces, valued at an estimated $1.3 million, from the gallery and a nearby warehouse. A ledger book revealed 98 pages of ivory sales invoices, according to the warrant affidavit.
Some of the items included a chess set, rings, Japanese ornaments and a sculpture of Romeo and Juliet.
Most of the items seized were ivory from elephants, but some were hippopotamus teeth.
The state ban on ivory includes mammoth, mastodon, walrus, warthog, whale and narwhal teeth and tusks as well as any form of rhinoceros horn.