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Where Have All the Kolinsky Sable Brushes Gone?

by Deb Shaw with A LOT of contributing authors. Please see the contributors’ list at the end of this article.

I’ll begin with two apologies: the first is for the length of this article. There is a lot of information and misinformation about the disappearance of Kolinsky brushes from art suppliers in the US. It’s a complicated subject, and I’m attempting to gather everything together in one place. The second apology is for the delay in posting this article. Each month I’ve heard rumors that the stockpiles of brushes being held in US Customs were about to be released, and so I’ve erroneously concluded it was a moot point to publish. We’re still waiting, so I’ll dive in.

Background, History, Rumors and Facts

Kolinsky brushes are made with the hair of the Siberian weasel, Mustela sibirica. Some internet information about Kolinsky brushes states that the best brushes are made only with the hairs from the tip of the tales of male weasels, gathered in winter. Some sources claim the hair is gathered from wild populations where the weasels are a pest; some say the hair is a by-product of the fur trade; others state the hair is collected only from humanely and sustainably farmed animals. There is also information that says the animals do not do well in captivity, so it’s impossible to “farm” them. All sources agree that Siberian weasels are not endangered: the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies these animals as “least concern for extinction.”

Siberian Weasel (Mustela sibirica), Zoo Dresden, Winter 2002/2003, By Altaipanther (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Siberian Weasel (Mustela sibirica), Zoo Dresden, Winter 2002/2003, By Altaipanther (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Barry MacKay described them on the GNSI ListServ: “These weasels weigh about 360 to 820 grams, with males, on average, larger than the ladies. That puts them bigger than most animals tagged with the name “weasel”, but smaller than our mink. They are a lovely soft brown in colour, with a blackish face mask and a touch of white near the tip of the muzzle.” In addition to his bird art, Barry works on animal trade issues, and has attended several Conferences of the Parties to CITES. His understanding is that Mustelids do not do well in captivity, due to their high metabolism, activity and home range sizes. Apparently, they have a lot of stress-related illnesses in captivity.

Weasel hair for brush manufacture typically comes from Russia, China, India and Japan. Mustela sibirica populations also are found in Bhutan, Korea, Nepal, Laos, Burma, Taiwan and Thailand. Once gathered, the hair is then made into brushes either in China or the country of origin, or is sent to Europe or the UK to be made into brushes there.

For us to be able to buy Kolinsky sable brushes in the United States, the appropriate paperwork is required for exporting the hair from the country of origin, and then “re-exporting” the brushes from the country of manufacture. The problems with our supplies of Kolinsky brushes started in 2012, when a US Fish and Wildlife Service inspector was requested to research paperwork and permits from Europe for “re-exporting” Kolinsky hair.

Research and interviews about the disappearance of Kolinsky brushes turned up a multitude of reasons, rumors and innuendos. I emailed the US Fish and Wildlife Service directly, and, much to my surprise, on February 14, 2014, received a reply from Craig Hoover, Chief, Wildlife Trade and Conservation Branch, Division of Management Authority. I’ll confess, I’m still impressed to have even received a response. I’ve edited Mr. Hoover’s reply slightly (for example, taking out my complaints about their website not working), but am posting his answers verbatim below:

Dear Ms. Shaw,

…We appreciate your inquiry and the concerns raised by the industry. We’ve had numerous consultations on this issue and are happy to share additional information with you. Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

Kolinsky hair brushes use hairs derived from the Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica). This species was added to Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989 by India. CITES, as you may know, is a treaty to prevent species from becoming endangered or extinct because o