Ivory Ban Rocks the String World

New federal restrictions shift focus to antiques


On February 11, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will implement a commercial ban on trade in elephant ivory, including bows adorned with ivory and brought to America and previously covered by certification under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) international treaty.

The move comes after a recent report shows that the United States is the second-largest ivory market in the world, with one pound fetching about $1,500—only a quarter of what it sells for in China. Such prices for ivory sustain international crime syndicates that are blamed for the recent slaughter of an estimated 30,000 elephants on protected animal reserves. The Obama administration is hoping to alter demand in the States with new, stricter enforcement that will undoubtedly affect the stringed-instrument world.

According to the published guidelines, import and export of elephant ivory will be prohibited. “All commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, will be prohibited. All commercial exports will be prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, certain noncommercial items, and in exceptional circumstances permitted under the Endangered Species Act.”

And, what about the ivory pieces found on many antique bows favored by players? Domestic resale of elephant ivory will be significantly restricted under proposed rules. “Sellers of antiques in interstate commerce must prove through documented evidence that items qualify as bona fide antiques,” the new Fish and Wildlife regulations state. According to Fish and Wildlife, the definition of antique is currently an interim rule that will be up for “public comment.” A final rule is expected by June.

For any in-state sale, the seller must provide an Endangered Species Act (ESA) permit, proving the ivory was acquired legally before 1990, when an international ban on African ivory trading went into effect, following a 1975 ban on Asian elephant ivory. Holding an ESA permit means the item was proved to have been lawfully imported prior to the 1975 and 1990 CITES laws. With the burden of proof falling on the seller rather than the government, sales in general will become more complicated, critics contend.

“We’ve been following the latest ivory restrictions with concern,” says Jason Price, director of the auction house Tarisio. “No one doubts that the efforts are well intended, but increasing the administrative responsibilities for antique ivory doesn’t seem to be the most direct way of combating the actual problem.”

Fish and Wildlife contends that the legal ivory trade “can serve as a cover for illegal trade,” and because it is so difficult to differentiate legal ivory from illegal, tough restrictions must be put into place. One exception appears to contradict all of the other controls. Under a special exception, some ivory may be imported through “limited sport-hunting of African elephants for trophies.”

The use of ivory has been a constant for centuries, and much of the ivory in the United States arrived years ago, making this is an especially contentious issue among antique dealers, many of whom declined to comment for this article.

Dealers who only sell antique ivory will not be affected in terms of their offerings, but the ban will add extra layers of bureaucracy, processing time, and fees. Price notes that Tarisio has spent more than $20,000 in U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit fees in the past two years.

Bow maker Matthew Wehling guesses that those hit hardest by the new restrictions will be dealers of older bows with ivory pieces. “There are thousands of beautiful bows made between 1914 and the institution of ivory bans in 1975 and 1990, which will now have to be altered if they are to be made available for sale,” he says.

As for players, it’s not illegal to own an instrument or bow with elephant ivory (provided it was lawfully imported and acquired), but if you want to sell it, you’ll either need to have it replaced or wait for its 100th birthday.

As for alternative materials on a bow’s frog and tip, some bow makers use mammoth ivory, found in the tundra of northern Siberia. “I don’t think the ivory ban will have a big effect,” says bow maker Ken Altman. “Everybody uses mastodon ivory these days. What with the melting of the glaciers, we may see a much bigger supply of mastodon ivory in the years ahead.”

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