13 April 2014

Violin Materials and the Law (part 1)

At Mondomusica NY, a violin exhibition and trade show, there was a four-hour presentation/discussion on materials and legal/border problems. It was a very good talk. There were three representatives from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for the regulation of animal products, and three from the US Department of Agriculture APHIS, which is responsible for regulating plant products. In addition, there were representatives from the League of American Orchestras, a noted bow maker, a noted violinmaker, and a conservation lawyer.

I went largely because I am concerned about the newly-instituted changes in the ivory ban, which will affect classic bows. However, the talk only lightly touched on that.

There WERE a few other items of immediate concern to luthiers, that I hadn't even been aware were issues.

Does an item incorporate any wildlife product? If so, it must be declared.

Apparently, there's been a law on the books for a long time that you have to declare ANY products that use wildlife parts. This has not really been enforced until recently. This is a matter of declaring materials, not a matter of whether they are permitted (a different topic). ANY non-domesticated animal is considered wildlife. Farmed or captive-reared is not the same as domesticated.

How does this affect those of us in the violin trade?
  • ANY form of shell is considered a wildlife product, including shells from cultured oysters. All mother-of-pearl is a wildlife product, as is abalone and awabi.
  • Only leather from domesticated animals - cows, goats, sheep, etc. is exempt from having to be declared. Lizard or snakeskin grips are wildlife products.
  • Bone is not a wildlife product if it comes from a domesticated species. Most bone used by luthiers does not need to be declared.
  • All ivory is a wildlife product, as no domesticated species produces ivory. Even mammoth or mastodon ivory, which is legal and unregulated, must be declared.
Any declaration needs to have the full species name - genus and species. It should also have country of origin, if possible, and an estimate of age.

Commercial or non-commercial?

A second area of concern was the distinction between commercial and non-commercial use. The profession of the person taking an instrument across a border determines this, not the intended use of a particular instance. So - a luthier who is taking a personal instrument to a conference, to show it around, needs a commercial import/export permit. It doesn't matter that there is no intent to sell the instrument abroad. The permit is required if the person is in the trade. So, for instance, if I take an instrument with me, just to practice, when I go to visit family in Canada, I should have a permit, because I am in the trade. The discussion did not make it clear whether that applies to musicians who are not luthiers; it very well may, since playing for hire is a commercial activity.
The Fish and Wildlife Service people were actually very helpful, and repeatedly told us to call them, they were more than happy to help, they had no interest in causing problems. But they had to enforce the law.

We need some sort of negative documentation

However one thing that threw the government reps is that people want -- need, actually -- some sort of documentation that certifies when an instrument is free of anything that needs a permit. If a tip is made of high-quality synthetic ivory, no permit is needed, not even an import/export license; but how can we document that? A Customs agent can't be counted on to be able to tell the difference. If they don't believe you when you say the tip is synthetic, they can seize the bow. The USFWS representative explained that if there is a question, there is a procedure for seizure and expert identification - but that could take quite a bit of time.

I gathered from the conversation that FWS had envisioned the proposed "passports" as applying only to objects that do incorporate wildlife and thus come under their jurisdiction. They had not considered that completely exempt objects might need acceptable documents. They expressed willingness to work with some organization on this. This should be high priority for all of us

Meanwhile - luthiers should start using full scientific names for the materials we use, and state them on any receipts or invoices. This is needed for animal materials, of course, but the representatives from APHIS spoke about ebony and rosewood restrictions, and we should get into the habit of doing so for woods also. On the plant side, they have much greater latitude - in general, finished pieces do not face restrictions, while raw materials do. On the animal side, the bans are all or nothing - it doesn't matter how small a piece of animal material is in a piece.

Crossing borders

A luthier or anyone else "in the trade" who plans to cross out of or into the US with anything that has any restrictions should get an import/export permit, which costs $100 a year.
Any materials that require an ESA or CITES permit should have those lined up before FWS clearance is sought, and FWS clearance must be obtained before arriving at the border. It is best to contact FWS 48 hours ahead of time. There are a very limited number of "designated ports of entry"; entry through a different port might be possible with 72 hours notice and probably an additional fee.
All of that sounds like it is designed for large commercial shipments, and it is. Unfortunately, since "commercial" is defined for the person, it can be held to apply to trips by one in the trade with one's personal instrument.

However, there are apparently two types of certificates issued that can be issued to musicians - one, tied to the instrument, good for three years, which allows you to take the instrument in and out of the country during those three years. This is the "passport" they have been talking about.
There is also a traveling exhibition certificate, which allows a bunch of instruments to be taken in and out together, and is the permit issued to orchestras on tour.

Simple solution

The simplest solution is to avoid having any material on your instruments that is, or could reasonably be confused with, a restricted species. Remove all mother-of-pearl. Make sure all leather is goat, and have a receipt that says so. Replace tips with a synthetic substitute.

Of course, if you have an important bow or instrument, this would ruin the historical and artistic integrity of the piece. In that case, it will be necessary to get a permit. That is, if possible. In some cases (notably a piece that incorporates elephant ivory), it will not be legal to cross borders with it, or even sell it at all, as the law stands now.

Some woods are restricted in raw form, though right now finished products are okay. The only wood typically of concern on a violin is the ebony; Madagascar ebony is a listed species. But we don't know what will happen in the future. If you are making new, it might be advisable to find a substitute, or at least provide as much documentation as possible with an instrument. The same is true of pernambuco, for bows - right now, finished products are okay, but the species is listed in CITES.

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