Piano Price Point.com ~ March 2014
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Changes to Ivory Regulations and Piano Implications

African Elephants

Do you live in the USA?

Do you have a piano with ivory keys?

You may soon be conducting illegal activity if you try to sell your piano, according to proposed changes by the Obama administration announced on Febraury 11,2014.

Forbes logo


First of all, I want to clear the air by saying that I don’t believe in the slaughter of elephants. That age and era is closed and done regarding piano manufacturing. The piano industry neither fuels nor propagates the sale of new ivory. However, I take exception to changing the rules so drastically that many piano stores, technicians and individuals will find themselves conducting possible illegal activity simply by selling a piano that was until recently deemed legal. Do you own a piano with ivory keys? Read on…

Clint Hughes - Grand American Piano

Vintage Grand Piano

When Grand American Piano owner, Clint Hughes, brought this to my attention a few weeks ago, he said “Glen, the effect on the piano industry would be titanic. Check out this Forbes article.” Piano Price Point, however is a website about modern piano making. The piano industry today doesn’t involve ivory of any kind since the official ban in 1989/90. CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) prevented further slaughter of animals for the use of materials in pianos. Since then, (25 years later) the majority of pianos have been made with plastics while others work with cattle bone, simulated synthetic ivory or mineral keytops. The reason I bring this up is that if you’re in the piano business – whether new sales or not – then you’ve run into ivory keys at some point. For those who have not seen the published article, you can read it here. (Also printed by National Geographic,Telegraph and original source US Fish & Wildlife). In short, on February 11, 2014 the Obama administration released proposed changes to American laws regarding ivory. The proposed changes are as follows according to the Forbes article:

1. NO imports are allowed even with antique status (over 100 years). In past, CITES certificates could be obtained for authentication of pianos older than the 1989 ban.
2. All exports are banned except for antiques with documentation.
3. All interstate sales are banned as are intrastate commercial transactions – prohibited except with documentation.

I’ve been in piano sales since I was 23. Occasionally, exceptional pianos (usually higher priced grands) were bought and sold between the USA and Canada and CITES certificates would be obtained for such instruments. Minimum wait times were 3 months but more realistic delays were 10 months to a year. If I’m reading this Forbes article correctly, not only is the sale of pianos with ivory keys banned between these two neighbouring countries completely, but within the United States there is also a requirement for EVERY piano newer than 100 years old to have documentation if it has ivory keys. I don’t know about you but the ramifications of this are huge.

Firstly, I really dislike the fact that now piano technicians and shops are ‘guilty unless proven innocent’. The responsibility is that the owner needs to provide proof of authenticity, without which the sale would be considered illegal. It makes this respectable industry criminal. Secondly, if the procurement of occasional CITES permits seems to presently take an eternity, try having mandatory paperwork for EVERY piano with ivory. What will happen? My guess is that the over-taxed under-staffed CITES office will be bombarded with requests and subsequent wait times will balloon into years. Conversely, people will throw up their hands in frustration and simply ignore the new rules. Trying to regulate ivory and prohibit sales of legally obtained ivory from decades ago, as it exists on pianos, will not advance the cause the Obama administration is trying to implement. The Forbes article raises valid questions – namely, will this be enforced? Will the commerce of ivory cease? Will the Fish and Wildlife agents be able to keep up to demand?

So, what’s the answer? Awareness is the first step in addressing the issue. That is why this blog and mail out are important. Piano owners in the possession of ivory need to be made aware of the implications of new ivory regulations. The next step might possibly be discussion at the local level of piano technicians and teachers. If the process of registering a piano could be simplified via accurate serial number dating and/or exceptions made for pianos as a whole, the industry might not suffer such a black eye. Finally, communication needs to happen at governmental level to express concerns.

Ivory Trade

Am I blowing this all out of proportion? Possibly. The enforcement of such laws may never be implemented. The regulations might be too poorly manned. When push comes to shove however and there is a piano in transit that gets stopped… who is going to be in the wrong? Precisely – the seller will be considered conducting illegal trade of ivory. Subtle as this may be, the new rules shift “the burden of proof for whether ivory is legal from the government to an ivory holder.” [National Geographic] Never before in the history of piano making has the yard line been so drastically altered. In my opinion, this topic needs careful consideration and requires immediate action.

Elephant facts:
There are fewer than 500,000 elephants known to exist in Africa. Poachers are killing off an estimated 35,000 per year. It is completely understandable that the illegal trade of ivory needs to stop. According to the Telegraph, the ivory business represents a 7-10 billion dollar annual trade.