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What Do New Ivory Regulations Mean For The Music Industry?

Retailers, musicians, and manufactrurers anxiously await final draft of rules while NAMM lobbies Congress 

...what the agency called a “nearly complete ban” on commercial elephant ivory allowed into the United States. The ban prohibits the sale or shipment of even the smallest amounts of African or Indian ivory, as well as ivory from the tusks of the long extinct mastodon. From a practical standpoint, this means that older guitars with ivory nuts or pianos with ivory keys can no longer be legally sold or shipped. Furthermore, musicians traveling across state or country lines, risk having instruments with ivory confiscated.

The regulations contain an exemption for instruments “documented” as more than 100 years old that have never undergone any repair work. However, even with “documented evidence” old, but not-quite-antique ivories could not be sold across state lines. Given that most 19th century instrument makers were not in the habit of creating certificates of authenticity, there is little if any documentation available to satisfy the requirements.

The music world saw these rules in action last May when Fish and Wildlife agents seized seven violin bows from the Budapest Festival Orchestra as it was en route to playing a series of concerts at New York’s Lincoln Center. The agents eventually concluded that the bows contained no ivory after holding them for several days, but issued a $525 fine nonetheless because the orchestra had not filled out the proper forms. Loaner bows were found in time for the concert, however, the incident has prompted a number of other musicians and orchestras to rethink performing in the U.S. Renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, was one of many who criticized the clumsy confiscation. “I think it’s ridiculous,” he said. “The tip of the bow is going to save the African elephant? Why don’t they go after the poachers? It’s very terrible what’s happening there, but why do you have to make a point on the backs of string players?”

For retailers of vintage guitars, high-end violins, or grand pianos, the regulations present a serious threat to their ongoing existence. Noted vintage expert George Gruhn, of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville says that under the regulations, it will be illegal to sell virtually all Martin guitars made prior to 1970. Sally Phillips, a piano technician, contends that the laws create innumerable headaches for retailers and technicians. Aside from the obvious fact that selling a piano with ivory keys would be illegal, the laws would prohibit piano technicians from repairing chipped ivory keys; or transporting a piano with an ivory keyboard to their shop. She reports that one piano-moving company has even said it will no longer handle any pianos with ivory keys, regardless of the documentation, for fear of running afoul of the regulations.

Ivory was widely used by instrument makers in the past because of its durability, lightweight, and visual appeal. By the 50s, however, the industry began switching to synthetic substitutes. Piano makers abandoned ivory keys in the 1950s, guitar makers switched to plastic nuts and saddles in the 1970s, and violin bow makers abandoned ivory tips a decade later. In recent years however, as plastic technology has advanced, new synthetic materials that mimic the grain structure of ivory have been embraced. This creates a problem for new instruments, given that most Fish and Wildlife agents are not particularly adept at distinguishing between ivory, ivoroid, or other synthetics. Pointing to the unhappy experience of the Budapest Orchestra, Gruhn noted, “A Fish and Wildlife agent can seize any instrument on the suspicion that it contains ivory, and it’s up to the owner to prove conclusively that it doesn’t. I see this as a huge problem.”

NAMM has mounted a lobbying effort in Washington, calling for a broad exemption for musical instruments. In recent testimony before House Committee on Natural Resources, Arian Sheets, Curator of Stringed Instruments at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, said, “Music is an essential element of our cultural heritage and individual instruments can be played for decades, or even hundreds of years. Banning the sale of certain high-quality vintage musical instruments will, in my view, impair the future of music in the culture of the United States. I would respectfully request that this Subcommittee urge the Fish and Wildlife Service to create an exemption from any sales ban for musical instruments or products containing only a small amount of ivory.”

Environmental organizations, led by the Wildlife Conservation Society have pushed back against granting any exemptions in the ivory ban, arguing that doing so would hasten the extinction of the African elephant. Cristián Samper, CEO of the organization said a “total ban” on ivory sales “is the only effective strategy for addressing this crisis.” Politicians in New York and New Jersey have adopted a similar stance, banning ivory sales in the state.

Photographs of hideously slaughtered elephants make clear that poaching is a serious problem. However, Craig Hoover, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Trade and Conservation recently said that very little of this illegally poached ivory is coming to the U.S.; most is destined for the Asian market, specifically China. Furthermore, it’s not at all clear that impeding the travels of musicians, or the sale of older musical instruments that contain a gram or two of ivory will do anything to address the problem.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will consider the testimony of NAMM representatives and others as it drafts final regulations on the trade and transportation of ivory. The rules are due out in August, when they will be put out for a period of public comment. Mary Luehrsen, NAMM’s director of public affairs and government relations, advised industry members to refrain from commenting until the regulations are released. “We will advise and encourage NAMM members to comment, at that time,” she said. “If necessary we will mount a major grassroots campaign to protect musicians and the industry.”

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