Limits on Ivory Sales, Meant to Protect Elephants, Set Off Wide Concerns

Mar 21

Published on on

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.

“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.

A new law could keep Bernice Sarisohn and her husband, Floyd, from auctioning any of their antique ivory chess pieces. CreditBryan Thomas for The New York Times

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 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 in tusks.

“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 worthless.

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 quarters.”

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 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.