The item sold on eBay as a "Chinese plastic carved lady statue and wood base," but federal investigators say what a Roseville resident really sold was illegal ivory.

Minghao Hou is now the subject of a inquiry into the trafficking of ivory, decades after it became illegal. Hou has not yet been charged, but his home has been searched, turning up 26 elephant ivory carvings.

His attorney said Hou did not know he was shipping illegal ivory, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives were skeptical.

"It's not a new thing," said Tina Shaw, a public affairs specialist in the agency's regional office. "It's very much on our radar."

There have been a handful of cases in the past five years involving sale of ivory and endangered species in the Midwest, Shaw said.

"For certain types of animals and plant materials, I think there's always a deficiency of knowledge, but ivory has been in the news since the 1980s," Shaw said. "So, in the ivory case, it's not a lack of information."

An interest in artifacts

Attorney Tim Webb said his client didn't realize the items he sold were ivory and that he believed the ivory he owned was antique ivory.

"My client is Chinese and he's had an interest in collecting Chinese artifacts, almost exclusively from local antique shops," Webb said.

It is legal to transport ivory that is more than 100 years old, Shaw said, as long as it's ship-ped with proper documentation.

Hou is in the United States from China on a work visa and is employed in computer logistics. He and his wife, Xiaohong Sui, also sell antiques on eBay.

Hou's name first came across investigators' radar in June 2011 when elephant ivory was identified in a package he was shipping to China from the International Mail Facility at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. The customs declaration listed the package as a "Chinese plastic carved lady statue and wood base" valued at $39.99.

Another of Hou's packages was intercepted the next day. It was listed as containing an "old plastic figural snuff bottle," with a value of $39.95. The second item could not be identified as ivory because of its small size and painted exterior that required further lab verification.

An investigator found that the two items had been listed on eBay. The first package was sold for $399.95, the second for $206.50.

While there was no mention of the word "ivory" in either description, "ox bone" was used in reference to the first item.

Unknown materials?

Webb said his client labeled his items as ox bone on the recommendation of other dealers who didn't think his items were ivory.

He speculated that Hou did not report the actual cost of the packages for security reasons, but said the shipping of ivory over 100 years old is not illegal and that Hou's "antique ivory" was beyond that age.

But if the items were antique, they would still need a valid permit and to be declared to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upon import and export -- two things Hou did not do.

Webb said he thought it was "silly" to pursue a violation because he didn't think most people would know to license ivory before selling it and sending it overseas.

"It's a well-intentioned law," Webb said. "They're trying to conserve endangered species, but it's probably not as easy to regulate. It's a complicated regulatory scheme."

But Shaw said it's like any other government regulation.

"Just like if you're going to be building a building you need a permit," Shaw said. "We want people to follow the right process."

Asha Anchan • 612-673-4154