Limits on Ivory Sales, Meant to Protect Elephants, Set off Wide
From The New York Times
By Tom Mashberg, March 20, 2014
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
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
“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
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
Officials with the United States 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
“The U. S. market is contributing to the crisis now threatening the
African elephant,” the Fish and Wildlife Service director, Daniel M.
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 six 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, where the give and take was impassioned.
Kimball M. 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
In an interview before the hearing, Mr. 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
Even when sales are still allowed, the new regulations would bring
tremendous change to the legal market for ivory, which currently
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
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
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.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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,"
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.
Mr. 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
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 buy buyers given the cloud
over their resale value.
Some museums are also concerned about the regulations, which will
eliminate charitable tax deduction 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