21 May 2014

Update - Ivory rules relaxed - sort of.

OK, ivory-ban followers:
There is good news, and there is bad news. 

In February, the US announced new regulations that would ban trade in just about all elephant ivory. This is not precisely a US law; it is a law on how to implement the CITES, an international treaty that outlaws trafficking in elephant ivory (and other endangered species). We all agree that elephant conservation is a Good Thing. The issue, from a luthier's perspective,  has been with the implementation.

Bows historically had a tiny bit of ivory on the tip. The US has had a ban on the import of elephant ivory since 1976. Since then, virtually all new bows have been made with bone tips, or with legal fossil ivory. A few makers have been using up their old stock of pre-ban ivory. But no elephants have been killed to provide ivory for bows.

This new law tightens the regulations. They made ANY trade in ivory illegal - even domestically - and left a very small exception for antique ivory, which they defined as 100 years old. Unfortunately, many of the recognized masters of bow making lived in the last half of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. Think of an artist like Picasso - a recognized master, but many of his works are considerably less than 100 years old.

And so the music world protested. No one wants to disregard elephant slaughter, but these bits of ivory will not cause the death of any more elephants, and to remove the tips would be like removing the red pigment from a Picasso. Maybe you can replace the red pigment, but you risk damaging the art and the result is no longer a pristine Picasso. So too with replacing the tip of a Sartory.

The government has actually been quite willing to be reasonable, and has been negotiating with representatives of various musical associations, notably the League of American Orchestras. However, there is also a very strong lobby of animal protection groups, who feel (without much data to support this view, IMO) that ANY ivory trade encourages poaching.

---- And so on to the news: ----

Good news: 

The government is relaxing the ban on the transport across borders of instruments containing tiny bits of ivory (as in violin bow tips).  It IS possible to get a permit, as long as the ivory is pre-ban (before Feb 1976), and you can provide acceptable documentation.

Bad news: 

First, you must get CITES documents, which may be impossible to do.  Second, you must not have bought the instrument after Feb of this year (2014).

The requirement that the ivory be pre-ban is quite sensible. Since the ban, it has been illegal to import ivory, so any post-ban ivory is contraband, and they don't want to allow the legal transport of contraband. Unfortunately, to get CITES documents, you must show a chain of legal events, including export documentation from the country of origin, and documentation of legal import into the US. Unfortunately, this need was not on the horizon prior to the ban, or even really recognized in the 38 years since then, so in most cases the required paperwork simply doesn't exist.

The government has indicated a certain willingness to be somewhat flexible, but the question remains as to how flexible the government will be with good faith estimates or documentation.  Logic would dictate that if you can document that the bow was in this country in 1972, then the ivory also had to have been imported prior to 1976 and is thus legal.

The second requirement, that the bow must not have been bought or sold after February of this year, is bizarre. This makes any ivory-containing instrument unsaleable in the US, which I imagine is the purpose. It prevents a future market in such items, and without such a market, there is no incentive to forge documentation for illegal ivory to pass as legal ivory. However, in the violin world, there really is no market for ivory in the first place, only for the works of art which happen to contain bits of ivory, and which may be irreparably damaged if those bits are removed.

Still, it's progress. Stay tuned ...