New federal regulations to block the sale of ivory to protect endangered elephants have Sounds Great music store owner Chuck Vetter concerned.

New federal regulations to block the sale of ivory to protect endangered elephants have Sounds Great music store owner Chuck Vetter concerned.
“The repercussions for businesses like mine could be severe,” he said.
The same goes for musicians, antiques collectors and dealers, gun collectors and others whose ability to sell, repair or travel with legally acquired ivory objects will soon be blocked. Trade groups opposing the regulations include 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.
Following the Feb. 11 release of the Obama Administration’s National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to implement a U.S. ban on commercial trade of elephant ivory in response to the escalating wildlife trafficking crime that threatens the survival of the African elephant, among other species.
“We are seeing record high demand for wildlife products that is having a devastating impact, with species like elephants ... facing the risk of significant decline or even extinction,” said Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior said in a statement on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website. “A commercial ban is a critical element in the President’s strategy to stop illegal wildlife trafficking and to shut down criminal markets that encourage poaching.”
Anyone who currently owns legally obtained ivory may keep it. The ban includes expected actions such as limiting the number of big-game kills by hunters and stopping importing and exporting of ivory, including antique items, but it also would limit interstate sales of items including worked ivory, such as chess sets and piano keys, unless the item is deemed an antique. The definition of an antique for these purposes is an item 100 years old or more with documented provenance.
“None of us want to see the elephants killed,” Vetter said, “but we’re talking about ivory from elephants that died more than 50 years ago. How is ruining beautiful instruments or banning their sale helping to protect the elephants living now?”
Vetter is referencing the finalizing of a proposed rule that will “reaffirm and clarify that sales across state lines are prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, and will prohibit sales within a state unless the seller can demonstrate an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document,” according to the USFWS.
In addition, antiques would have to “meet other requirements under the Endangered Species Act. The onus will now fall on the importer, exporter or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria.”
Proprietors like Vetter would have to hire a specialist to determine whether the ivory on items like piano keys is from an Asian or African elephant, as different rules apply to the different species. He’d have to spend time searching for documentation for some items to prove their age, perhaps fruitlessly. He’d also not be able to sell some items in his possession unless he makes changes to them.
“For example,” Vetter said, “I have a beautiful 1936 Mason and Hamlin piano with nearly perfect ivory keys, no yellowing, no chips. It doesn’t meet the limited exceptions criteria for antiques. I’m not in the piano collecting business, I’m in the piano sales business. For me to be able to legally sell this piano with those rules in place, I’ll have to remove the ivory keys and spend about $500 to have someone replace them with plastic keys. The piano is devalued, and I’ve lost the premium I spent on it when I traded for it. It’s just a shame, for the industry and for the instrument.”
Vetter also fears the slippery slope. “I have a turn of the [20th] century Washburn parlor guitar,” he said, taking it out and strumming it.
“It has an ivory saddle and nut. I can replace them, they’re small parts. But the back and sides of this guitar are made of Brazilian rosewood. That’s also an endangered item. Guitars made of Brazilian rosewood were well-crafted. But if the same types of rules were to apply to this wood, and I couldn’t provide documentation, which I can’t, then this guitar could never leave my possession.”
It is estimated that poachers, working with criminal syndicates, systematically killed as many as 35,000 elephants in 2012. Globally, illegal ivory trade activity has more than doubled since 2007. With revenues totaling many billions of dollars, wildlife trafficking is estimated to be fourth largest trans-national crime in the world.  
“Clearly there’s an issue with poaching,” Vetter said, “but why not focus on the big guys who are doing the trafficking in recently harvested ivory? Why punish honest businesses and individuals who bought older items in good faith? The ramifications for people who have collected ivory antiques to sell for their retirement is devastating.”
The exceptions to the ban of commercial sale of elephant ivory within the United States include a narrow class of antiques that are exempt from regulation under the Endangered Species Act and items imported for commercial purposes before international commercial trade in these species was prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Anyone proposing to sell elephant ivory would be responsible to document that they are exempt. The USFWS expects this to be a small fraction of the current domestic trade.
Even when sales are allowed, the new regulations would bring tremendous change to the legal market for ivory. 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.
“If someone comes to me with a broken key top and wants me to fix it, I’m not sure I could legally do it,” Vetter said.
To illustrate the confusion ahead, the interstate sale of a 100-year-old piano with ivory keys would be illegal 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. But since none of those entry points had such legal power until 1982, the regulations would render it impossible to legitimize the piano’s ivory. 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.
“As soon as the regulations are published, I’ll be writing all my representatives, making phone calls, and writing to the regulatory commission,” Vetter said. “Everything legal within my power.” But he foresees a grim outcome if the regs aren’t amended.
“I think it will make criminals out of upstanding citizens,” Vetter said. “What happened during Prohibition?”