Ivory Regulations Ban Update


Guest Blog

Update—October 2015

This past summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its proposed revisions to rules regarding the sale of objects containing ivory in interstate or foreign commerce.  Among other things, FWS has proposed that manufactured items containing de minimis amounts of ivory—defined as a maximum of 200 grams—be exempt from the permitting requirements of the Endangered Species Act, provided they meet certain criteria.  In its announcement of the proposed rules in the Federal Register (http://www.fws.gov/policy/library/2015/2015-18487.pdf), FWS specifically stated (on page 45162) that the de minimis amount was defined to accommodate the approximate weight of a set of ivory piano key tops. This will allow pianos with ivory keys to be sold across state lines.

Here is the section concerning the de minimis rule:

We propose to allow sale and offer for sale of ivory in interstate or foreign commerce along with delivery, receipt, carrying, transport, or shipment of ivory in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of a commercial activity without a threatened species permit for manufactured items containing de minimis amounts of ivory, provided they meet the following criteria:

  • For items located in the United States, the ivory was imported into the United States prior to January 18, 1990 (the date the African elephant was listed in CITES Appendix I) or was imported into the United States under a CITES pre-Convention certificate with no limitation on its commercial use;
  • For items located outside the United States, the ivory is pre-Convention (removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976 (the date the African elephant was first listed under CITES));
  • The ivory is a fixed component or components of a larger manufactured item and is not, in its current form, the primary source of value of the item;
  • The manufactured item is not made wholly or primarily of ivory;
  • The total weight of the ivory component or components is less than 200 grams;
  • The ivory is not raw; and
  • The item was manufactured before the effective date of the final rule for this action.

However, public comments made in response to the proposed regulations point out a problem with the de minimis rule as it applies to pianos: There is no way to measure the amount of ivory in a set of key tops because removing the ivory to weigh it will damage both the ivory and the keys. One can only hope that, having defined the de minimis amount for this purpose, the FWS, in future, will not require proof of the weight of the ivory key tops in any particular piano in order to meet its criteria.

Additionally, the issue of repairs remains unclear, especially given the FWS comments on the subject, excerpted below (from the document cited above, page 45161):

For example, a person who transported an item containing ivory across State lines for the purpose of having the item repaired would not fall under the prohibition for “commercial activity.” Not every transaction that involves the exchange of money qualifies as commercial activity under the [Endangered Species Act]. In this case, the repair person would gain financially and the item may increase in value once repaired, but the payment of money would be to compensate the repair person for his or her labor and expenses and not involve gain or profit from the ivory item itself (unless the activity involved using additional ivory to repair the item, which would not be allowed).

If this portion of the proposed rule is adopted, the only repairs allowed would be the regluing of ivory key tops that have come from that same piano.  If the original ivory is missing, no additional ivory would be allowed to be taken from another old piano and installed.  There are, however, non-ivory fillers that technicians can use to replicate the appearance of ivory in a cracked or chipped key top.

Owners affected by this will be those who send their pianos across state lines to be rebuilt.  As seen in the above excerpt, the interstate shipping of a piano containing ivory would not be illegal, but the rebuilder would not be permitted to use any ivory not originally from that specific instrument to replace a missing or damaged key top.

The proposed and current rules are compared in this question-and-answer article on the FWS website: http://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/african-elephant-4d-proposed-changes.pdf

At the time of writing, the FWS had received more than 1.3 million comments on its proposed rules. After it has reviewed those comments, it will make whatever changes it feels are needed based on those comments, and then will issue its final rules on the subject. We will update this when the new Federal rules are issued.

What is still not known at this point is the impact of state laws on any particular sale or service.  States such as New York and California have passed laws that ban ivory sales but that protect pianos made before the international ivory bans.  New Jersey’s law prohibits all sales of ivory, including pianos containing ivory.  That means that, in New Jersey, you will not be able to buy or sell an old piano containing ivory, nor will you be able to have any repairs made to it using additional ivory. Many states are considering bans with varying levels of restriction.  Owners are advised to check the current laws of their state regarding ivory bans.


Over the past 35 years, piano technician Sally Phillips has worked in virtually every aspect of the piano industry—service, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. In her role as a concert-piano technician, she has tuned and prepared pianos for concert and recording work in such venues as Town Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and for such orchestras as the Cincinnati Symphony, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. At present, Phillips lives in Kentucky and works throughout the southeastern U.S. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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2 thoughts on “Ivory Regulations Ban Update

  1. We have recently deconstructed a piano that was built in 1899. We are repurposing the wood.
    As to the ivory keys, we would like to donate them to a high school art program to make clocks out of (and the ebony ones, too). The piano itself was made in our town.

    It looks as if that might be allowed? But could the school then sell the clocks, since the ivory came from a piano that old? Thank you.

    1. I think you could probably give the ivory away to the school, but I doubt the school would be allowed to sell the clocks with ivory. I suggest the school consult an attorney before using the ivory in its art program.

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