Vintage Instruments and the Ban on Ivory Trade

A presidential executive order issued February 11 proposes a wide ban on trade in ivory has widespread implications for trade in vintage musical instruments as well as antique art, furniture, firearms, swords, knives, and jewelry. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been tasked with writing and enforcing new regulations for import, export, and domestic trade of products containing ivory components. The proposed regulations are scheduled to be issued for a 90-day period of public comment in June.

Though instruments have been made with plastic or bone components for many years, numerous fretted-instrument makers utilized genuine ivory components on a variety of guitars, mandolins, and banjos. Martin guitars made prior to 1970 have ivory nuts and saddles, and, prior to 1918, Martin built some higher-grade models with ivory bindings, friction peg tuners, bridges, and bridge pins. Virtually all good-quality vintage violin bows are ivory tipped. High-grade pianos made prior to the mid 1970s have ivory keys, and many vintage woodwind instruments contain ivory spacer rings.

Though many of these components, including the ivory nuts and saddles on vintage Martin guitars, weigh only a few grams, any amount of ivory would subject the entire instrument to the same degree of regulation as if it were comprised entirely of ivory. While the executive order contains language that appears to exclude antique items more than 100 years old, other terms and conditions in the definition of “antiques” renders this exception virtually useless.

Vintage Instruments and the Ban on Ivory Trade
The ivory friction pegs of a 1902 Martin 00-42. 1902 Martin 00-42: William Ritter, courtesy of George Gruhn.

The proposal includes a total ban on importation of any products containing any amount of ivory regardless of age. These regulations would also cover exports and domestic interstate sales of any items containing ivory unless the products can qualify as “antiques” under a strict definition. Private ownership of instruments would not be prohibited, but the sale, trade, or international travel with an instrument would be subject to these regulations. The proposal’s impact on in-state sales of ivory-containing instruments is not clear, though it should be noted that the New York legislature is considering a bill to totally ban sales of all ivory (antique or not) within that jurisdiction, and California has already passed a law banning in-state sale of ivory.

While in most cases it is relatively easy to document the age of a Martin guitar or vintage piano, the owner/seller would also be required to provide documentation to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proving the ivory components were harvested legally have not been reworked since ivory was added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Treaty. Any re-shaping or cutting of the ivory would automatically give it the same legal status as newly harvested ivory. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requirements state that the ivory must be traced with documented provenance demonstrating it was legally imported through one of only 14 currently approved ports of entry. Since no such documentation was required or would now be available from over 100 years ago, this sets a standard which is impossible to meet, thereby effectively banning all export of ivory regardless of age. If these same standards are applied to interstate shipments, virtually all trade in ivory, regardless of its age, would be prohibited. This proof of provenance would be nearly impossible for most vintage-instrument owners and dealers. As a result, all original-condition Martin guitars with ivory components made from 1915 to 1970 would be illegal for interstate or international commerce, and instruments more than 100 years of age would be illegal for commerce if any ivory components have been reshaped or reworked in any manner. Even if dealers were permitted to remove ivory components from vintage instruments to replace it with bone, under the proposed regulations, it would be illegal to buy vintage instruments containing ivory prior to removing this material.

Vintage musical instruments are a significant part of our artistic and cultural heritage, and have been revered for hundreds of years. These instruments are not great simply because of their ivory components and would likely be as fully functional and highly respected today had they originally been made with components other than ivory, but we cannot retroactively alter history. Musical instrument makers, dealers, and musicians as a group have been one of the most environmentally conscious segments of society. Long before bans were placed on trade in tortoiseshell, Brazilian rosewood, and ivory, most makers had already stopped using these components on new instruments. Musical instrument makers, dealers, and musicians should be the logical allies of the environmentalists rather than being criminalized for dealing, preserving, playing, and collecting vintage instruments, especially since unlike the limited shelf life of many plant and animal products, items made with components such as ivory, wood, and shell products such as mother-of-pearl and abalone, can last for hundreds or even thousands of years.

We must recognize and acknowledge the legitimate concerns of conservationists and work to preserve and protect endangered ecosystems and species, but these legitimate goals cannot be achieved by criminalizing vintage musical instruments. When the proposed regulations are issued (likely in June), it will be critically important to write, offering constructive comments to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. In the meantime, we urge you to contact members of Congress in both the House and Senate to raise these concerns. It should be noted that the environmental lobbyists have successfully introduced similar legislation in the European Union, China, England, and Australia, and that ivory is also very strictly regulated under the CITES Treaty, which has been signed by more than 160 nations.

Further information can be found on the websites of the National Association of Music Merchants ( and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ( Articles and editorials have appeared in newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Tennessean, New York Daily News, Forbes, The Music Trades, and The Fretboard Journal.

This article originally appeared in VG July 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.