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Museums, Musicians, and Antiques Dealers Resist Harsh New Ivory Restrictions

by Allison Meier on June 26, 2014

A bull elephant in the Selous Reserve in Tanzania (photograph by bbmexplorer, via Flickr)

A bull elephant in the Selous Reserve in Tanzania (photo by bbmexplorer, via Flickr)

This spring has seen greater restrictions on the ivory trade in the United States, and while conservation groups and those concerned with the shocking depletion of the elephant and rhinoceros population are enthusiastic about the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s stricter ivory rules, others see the severe moves as negatively impacting the ownership of legally obtained antiques, particularly instruments.

This Tuesday, Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments at the National Museum Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, argued in a statement before the subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs:

Music is an essential element of our cultural heritage and individual instruments can 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.

Sheets urged the subcommittee to “create an exemption from any sales ban for musical instruments or products containing only a small amount of ivory.” As the Associated Press has reported, the new regulations announced in February put the commercial trade of elephant ivory under an almost total ban, which impacts musicians who travel with antique instruments. The ban does allow the noncommercial import of ivory that was legally acquired before February 26, 1976, but it’s rare for documentation to exist prior to 1989, when ivory sales were officially banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

A 17th century guitar with ivory details in the Metropolitan Museum of art (photograph by Aleksandr Zykov, via Wikimedia)

A 17th-century guitar with ivory details in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by Aleksandr Zykov, via Wikimedia)

While pianos are the most obvious ivory instruments, the material is also found in violin bows, guitar pegs, and other details on historic instruments. Parties like Sheets see the regulations as averting the main problem, which is still poaching, not a violinist trying to return from a concert in Paris without losing their most valuable possession or a museum attempting to acquire valuable pianos. However, Dan Ashe, a service director with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, explained in a statement:

We have one goal: to shut down the illegal trade in ivory that is fueling the poaching crisis facing African elephants today. By implementing a near complete ban on trade in elephant ivory, we are effectively closing loopholes and eliminating the cover provided by legal commercial trade that traffickers have exploited for years.

The plan was to have the regulations secured this month (you can find the current regulations on ivory on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service site, with the expected changes). These federal changes come alongside even stricter regulations in New York, with the state voting this month to ban almost all ivory. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, New York is the top importer of ivory in the United States. Governor Andrew Cuomo stated that the “illegal ivory trade has no place in New York State, and we will not stand for individuals who violate the law by supporting it.”

The New York law allows only the sale of ivory that’s at least 100 years old and actually made of less than 20% of ivory (the federal laws don’t have percentage restrictions). Clinton Howell, president of the Art and Antique Dealers League of America and one of several parties unhappy with the New York decision, responded by telling the New York Times that it “is masterful self-deception to think that the elephant can be saved by banning ivory in New York” and that “those of us with licenses to sell ivory have no problem with severe penalties for people who buy newly poached ivory, but that is absolutely not the problem here.”

report released this month by the United Nations and Interpol focusing on environmental crime shows that the ivory trade amounts to an annual market of up to $192 million. Meanwhile, at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Qatar this month, the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania was added to the List of World Heritage in Danger because of widespread poaching; the numbers of elephants and rhinoceros have dropped by almost 90% since 1982. All of this follows recent, high-profile public destructions of ivory, with China doing so this January, and before that the United States and the Philippines. Museums and antique dealers can argue that the restrictions are too harsh and don’t do enough to directly target the actual protection of animals, but there is a conservation crisis here that needs to be addressed. Perhaps only by attacking it from every possible side can the ivory trade be curtailed.

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  • Toranosuke

    I remain unconvinced that restricting the trade in genuine antiques will have any meaningful impact on the poaching that is going on today. When you start to think of it not as being about “dealers” “trafficking” in ivory objects for personal profit, but about museums being unable to borrow and lend historical objects that happen to have ivory elements, about musicians unable to travel with their instrument, or unable to get their instrument repaired or replaced, even with antique ivory, or about regular ordinary folks who can’t sell their piano or their heirloom ivory-handled six-shooter, or chess set, or whatever, I think a blanket policy such as this one is deeply problematic. Not only will it not accomplish what it sets out to do, but it does significant collateral damage, so to speak, to large swaths of people completely innocent of any involvement in recent, current, or future poaching.

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