The Ivory Page

We all want to see an end to the terrible business of ivory poaching and illegal trade.  But I can't see how destroying eighteenth-century pianos is the answer to the problem.


  We know that there have been 'difficulties' in the USA, including impounding the instruments of a visiting symphony orchestra (tips of violin bows, rings on bassoons...) but it does appear that common sense has prevailed, and my understanding is that the movement of antique items, including musical instruments, is now specifically allowed, as long as the ivory is incidental to the main purpose of the item (e.g. the keys of a piano) and there is a limit of 200 grams - not by coincidence the weight of the ivory on the keys of a typical piano.  


  However, I am getting a bit worried about the situation in the UK.  It is well-known that a paragraph in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto contained the words '...a total ban on ivory sales.'  Perhaps some of us thought that the government had other priorities on its mind, but an article by William Hague in the Daily Telegraph on September 2nd indicated that the issue is very much alive.  In the article he says: 'It is now essential that this commitment is honoured in full.'  And he casts doubt on the possibility of exemptions by saying 'The trouble is that well-intentioned but complex rules are difficult to enforce and easy to circumvent.'


 He goes on to state that the proposals have the support of Princes Charles, William, and Harry.  And he makes it clear that the timescale is within this parliament.


  It is, of course, perfectly possible to scrap the ivory on an historic instrument, and replace it with a synthetic material.  And for a new instrument, I was happy to use 'Elforyn' on the replica of the Blunt spinet (see the Spinet Page).  But for an old piano, there would be a cost.  My first estimate would be about £400, and the seller would have to undertake this work before offering a piano for sale.  In practical terms, this would mean that all but the most valuable historic pianos would become effectively impossible to sell, and therefore worthless.

For an antique spinet such as this beautiful 1735 Hitchcock, the work would be even more expensive, and who would want to do it?  


Update September 18th: In today's 'Sunday Telegraph', the topic receives half-a-page, including a large picture of conservation activity.  The article says: 'At last year's general election,the Tories promised action to ban all ivory sales, although this pledge has not yet been implemented.

  'The proposal has been criticised by antique dealers, who say it will put them out of business.

  'However, senior Conservative figures, including Lord Hague, the former Foreign Secretary, and Owen Paterson, the former Environment Secretary, are now demanding that ministers act urgently to fulfil their election pledge.

 'Mr Paterson is calling on the Prime Minister to announce a ban on ivory sales in Britain ahead of an international conservation summit this month.'

Update 21st September.  


More encouraging news today, courtesy of the Antiques Trade Gazette, who report that the ban which is to be announced will relate to sales of post-1947 ivory.  These are in any case subject to CITES rules and require certificates; it appears that such exemptions might no longer be possible.  It's not over yet, but it seems that our old pianos might be safe after all.  Link to ATG article below:

A press release from the government.


This is encouraging from our point of view, and I think that we could all support it.  There are certainly very few post-1947 square pianos with ivory keys!  There are just a few late twentieth-century harpsichords and other replica instruments that could be affected (there were at least three in the recent Finchcocks sale) but I think that it something we could accept.  Certainly, I would not advise amateur builders now to use ivory, even though it is usually recycled from old pianos.  It might well be 200 years old, but it would be expensive to prove that.  

There's more...  a large group of prominent people, including William Hague, say that the proposals don't go far enough, and are pushing for a 'total' ban, as per the Conservative Party manifesto.


 Perhaps it's not entirely surprising that the news from the Cites conference is confusing.  On 2nd October we had:


Call to close ivory markets agreed at Cites conference.  


Delegates at a UN wildlife conference have endorsed calls for the closure of all domestic ivory markets.  


All 183 countries signed, but some (notably Japan) are not likely to implement a ban, as they say there is no poached ivory in their market.


But  according to those involved, the Chinese were looking for an even stronger text on market closure.  "China wanted a very clear message that all domestic, legal markets should be closed" said Patrick Omondi, who is part of the the Kenyan delegation. 


More details at:



Then the day after, October 3rd, we learnt:  


Efforts to boost elephant protection fail at Cites


This refers to a proposition to upgrade the protection afforded to the African elephant in all African countries to Appendix I status, meaning that no trade at all would be possible.  This proposition was defeated, failing to acheive the necessary two-thirds majority.  The opposition of the EU, with a block vote of 28, was pivotal in this decision.


It remains to be seen what will happen in the UK; this is the background, but the UK can implement whatever laws it likes to restrict import, export, and domestic trade.  It occurred to me that there could be problems if such domestic laws conflicted with EC laws on free movement of goods, but this might not be an issue for much longer.


Update 1st November


The Daily Telegraph, 31st October, carries news of an open letter from nearly a hundred enviromentalists and celebrities to the Secretaries of State, reaffirming the call for the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto pledge to be fulfilled literally: "Close all remaining legal loopholes that facilitate the laundering of illegal ivory as ‘antique’ (pre-1947) and pre-Convention (pre-1975), by introducing a total ban on domestic ivory trade."  For the full letter, see:​



We await further developments.


 It turns out that the debate in UK parliament on 6th February was not in the Commons Chamber, but in Westminster Hall.  It was to debate the petition that has been received, which does call for a total ban.  As a result of the debate, the minister who led it will present the findings of the discussion to the House of Commons when the issue is eventually debated; it will be the debate in the Commons Chamber that will determine any changes in the law.  We do not have a date for this, but as it is government business, and a manifesto commitment, it is likely to happen

Reliable Sources' believe that current government thinking is just to place further restrictions on the trade in modern ivory  - which is already controlled, including a ban on reworking antique stock.  But vocal elements are insisting that only a TOTAL ban will do (Letter in the Daily Telegraph 06/02/2017.  Please follow the link below for a full transcript of the debate from Hansard.

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© David Hackett