New federal rules aimed at blocking the sale of ivory to protect endangered elephants are causing an uproar among musicians, antiques dealers, gun collectors and thousands of others whose ability to sell, repair or travel with legally acquired ivory objects will soon be prohibited.
Vince Gill, the guitarist and Grammy Award winner, who owns some 40 classic Martin guitars featuring ivory pegs and bridges, said he is worried now about taking his instruments overseas.
Floyd Sarisohn, a lawyer from Commack, N.Y., said he will be blocked from auctioning any of the hundreds of chess sets with antique-ivory pieces he has spent decades collecting.
Mike Clark, owner of Collectors Firearms in Houston, said he fears he might have to “gouge the ivory inlay” from scores of commemorative handguns and rifles that long predate the ban, if he wants to sell them.
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“I’m blindsided, as are all of us, by this regulatory change,” said Lark Mason, a New York auctioneer who has specialized in antique ivory for three decades. “We all want to save elephants,” he said, but he questioned how “denying the sale of an 18th-century snuff bottle,” among millions of other decorative antiques, will accomplish that end.
In simple terms, the new regulations ban Americans from importing and, with narrow exceptions, exporting any item that contains even a sliver of ivory. The rules do not ban private ownership, but they outlaw interstate sales of ivory items, unless they meet what sellers describe as impossible criteria.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which plans to have the new regulations in place in June, said drastic measures are needed to help curb the slaughter of African elephants. The animals now number a scant half-million, and conservationists say as many as 35,000 are dying annually to feed the global black market in tusks.
“The U.S. market is contributing to the crisis now threatening the African elephant,” the Fish and Wildlife Service director, Daniel Ashe, told Congress last month. Wildlife officials say only China has a larger legal market for ivory. As for the black market, over the past 25 years, federal agents say, they have seized 6 tons of ivory smuggled into in the United States.
Still, Craig Hoover, chief of the Wildlife Trade and Conservation branch at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said officials are reviewing adjustments to the regulations. They sought input Thursday at a meeting in Washington, D.C., where the give and take was impassioned.
Kimball Sterling of Johnson City, Tenn., who deals in antique-ivory walking sticks, said some of his biggest clients “are in their closets crying” because the multimillion-dollar collections they had hoped to bequeath to their heirs are on the verge of becoming worthless.
In an interview before the hearing, Hoover said, “I am not in any way trying to diminish the fact that this is going to have an impact on many different industries.” During the session, Bryan Arroyo, assistant for international affairs at the wildlife service, said, “I regret that the ban is creating a lot of anger in some quarters.”
Even when sales are still allowed, the new regulations would bring tremendous change to the legal market for ivory, which now allows for regulated sales of items that are at least 100 years old. For example, those looking to acquire ivory from past legal stockpiles to restore antiques, make pistol grips or otherwise refurbish items will no longer be able to do so.
An unusual assortment of trade groups opposes the regulations, including the National Association of Music Makers, the Art and Antiques Dealers League of America and the National Rifle Association. The critics say the rules are confusing, unfair and should be rewritten to account for ivory that came into the country long ago.
To illustrate the confusion ahead, experts gave the example of what would happen under the new regulations if someone attempted the interstate sale of a 100-year-old Steinway piano with ivory keys. Such a sale has long been permissible, because the piano qualified as an antique that contained ivory imported long before the mid-1970s, when officials began proscribing the material.
But the new regulations would prohibit such a sale unless the owner could prove the ivory in the keys had entered the country through one of 13 American ports authorized to sanction ivory goods.
Given that none of those entry points had such legal power until 1982, the regulations would make it virtually impossible to legitimize the piano’s ivory, the experts said. That predicament that would apply to virtually all the antique ivory in the country, barring millions of Americans from ever selling items as innocuous as teacups, dice or fountain pens.
Some ability to sell ivory within a state will remain. But most owners will now have to document that the item has been in the United States for at least 100 years. Experts say few sellers of ivory heirlooms are likely to produce that level of certification. In addition, lawmakers in some states, including New York, are considering banning the in-state sale of ivory, effectively closing the trade completely.
Hoover said the eight-member advisory panel that formulated the new restrictions is aware they impose insurmountable hurdles. But he said the efforts by some smugglers to disguise recently poached ivory as antique material have made the additional restrictions necessary.
The new rules will also apply to rhino horn, whale teeth, walrus tusks, tortoise shell and certain woods that are also regulated under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
Mary Luehrsen, director of public affairs for the music-makers association, said many performers like Gill moved away from ivory in the 1970s in response to the elephant crisis. But hundreds of thousands of guitars, violin bows, woodwinds and other vintage instruments, many worth tens of thousands of dollars, will now be banned from resale.
“It seems like a very strident policy for the artistic industry,” she said.
Ivory is favored by string players and other musicians for its tonal qualities. Small amounts, for example, are often used at the top, or head, of a violin bow to keep the lengths of horsehair in place.
Yung Chin, a bow maker in New York, said the regulations would make tens of thousands of such bows, and other instruments, unmarketable unless the ivory were replaced with a legal material, such as mammoth ivory, at great expense.
Hoover said his agency would allow musicians to travel with ivory instruments if they gather paperwork to prove the items are legal and predate 1976, when the earliest ivory curbs began.
The forthcoming restrictions are already having an effect, according to Mason, the New York dealer. He pulled $500,000 worth of objects containing ivory from an auction scheduled for April, he said, because he feared they would be shunned by buyers given the cloud over their resale value.
Some museums are also concerned about the regulations, which will eliminate charitable-tax deductions for all donated ivory works, regardless of their age. Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said museums worry that the rule will “chill” donations. He said the broader policy will mean that museums like the Met, which import ivory items as part of loan shows, “will have to tread their way carefully” to make sure they do not run afoul of the more restrictive policies.
At the hearing, some critics questioned whether criminalizing the civilian ivory market would be as effective as helping African countries protect elephants and punish poachers. But federal officials said the reduction in demand will invariably put a dent in poaching efforts.