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Restrictions on instruments made from endangered species strike sour note

| Saturday, May 31, 2014, 10:40 p.m.

Steve Miklas used to do a brisk business in shipping overseas the high-end guitars he sells in his Squirrel Hill store.

But tighter restrictions on Brazilian rosewood, “the Holy Grail of tonewood,” ended that.

“The Japanese were the biggest collectors; we've lost that,” said Miklas, 58, of Whitehall, who owns Acoustic Music Works.

Rules stemming from the Obama administration's effort to protect endangered species through an international treaty will impact the makers and sellers of musical instruments, musicians and even gun and antiques dealers.

On June 26, the United States will tighten restrictions on the use of Asian elephant ivory, African elephant ivory, sea turtle shell and Brazilian rosewood. Ivory and Brazilian rosewood are among the protected materials most commonly found in stringed musical instruments.

Under pressure from musicians and other groups, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service recently relaxed an order that would have made it illegal to take instruments made from endangered species out of the country if they were purchased after Feb. 26, 1976. That's when international laws were enacted to protect elephants and other species.

That purchase date was extended to Feb. 25, 2014, so Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians who have the proper permits can travel abroad without worrying that their instruments containing ivory or rosewood will be confiscated when they return to this country.

Brazilian rosewood long has been preferred by string instrument makers because of its tonal qualities and beauty. The dense, dark wood from the Atlantic Forest of Brazil has been increasingly difficult to obtain since it was declared an endangered species in 1972.

For Miklas, who sells guitars made of the rare wood for $8,000 to $20,000, the rules hit a sour note, crimping “a critical part of our business.”

A moving target

Relaxing the travel rules for musicians “further indicates what a moving target all this refinement and re-regulation has been,” Miklas said.

In July, President Obama issued an executive order committing the country to step up efforts against wildlife trafficking.

The administration said a nearly complete ban on the commercial elephant ivory trade would best ensure that American markets don't contribute to the decline of faltering species. The Fish and Wildlife Service ordered strict enforcement of the Endangered Species and African Elephant Conservation acts.

For orchestras, the regulations will most impact the string section. A typical orchestra has 40 to 70 musicians, and as many as 60 can make up the string section — violins, cellos and basses.

“Many of them have more than one instrument,” said PSO spokeswoman Joyce DeFrancesco.

“It's definitely going to turn things upside down,” said renowned photographer and guitar collector Robert Corwin, 64, of Philadelphia, who has several hundred guitars in his collection.

A couple of overseas sales Corwin planned fell through “because it was too much of a hassle.”

Shipping musical instruments to any of the 180 countries bound by the treaty requires a permit issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The fees to obtain the permits for one guitar could be several hundred dollars, more than the $195 Corwin paid for the first C.F. Martin acoustic guitar he bought when he was 14. Today vintage guitars that were produced by the company in Nazareth, Northampton County, can command six figures. Small pieces of ivory often anchor either end of the strings.

Regulations on moving a piano with ivory keys or a violin bow crafted from tortoise shell across borders have been on the books for 40 years, said Craig Hoover, chief of the Wildlife Trade and Conservation Branch at the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Government regulators and instrument makers “have been missing each other” in communications, he said.

Complicating matters was the “ebb and flow” of ivory. Asian and African elephants were declared endangered species in the 1970s, but ivory was legally traded under a “special rule” until 1988.

The African elephant population dropped by more than half in a decade, plummeting from 1.3 million in 1978 to just 600,000 in 1988, the Humane Society International said.

Far-reaching effect

The regulations are forcing one auction house to rethink ivory sales.

“We're stepping back from it at this time,” said Dan Pletcher, president of the Constantine & Pletcher auction house in Cheswick. “It's going to have an effect ... but the water is still cloudy.”

Some experts think the ban could reach from auction houses of America to its flea markets, and have a greater impact than government officials contemplated, Pletcher said.

Many antique firearms, for example, contain ivory handles or inlays.

“We're talking Colts; we're talking America,” said Pletcher, 43, of Latrobe. “Will you have an expert drilling the handle to see if (the ivory) is 100 years old?”

Items 100 years or older are considered antiques and can qualify for an exception.

The ban might actually benefit some museums, one curator said.

“It might increase inquiries into donating (ivory) because you can't sell it,” said Michael Kraus, curator at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland. “I can see us being offered more, whether or not we can take it.”

The restrictions might curtail exhibits at other places, officials at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History said.

Because it will be difficult to ship ivory objects overseas as part of an exhibition, “museums may be pulling ivory ... from traveling shows,” said Leigh M. Kish, spokeswoman for the museum.

“The restrictions increase the appeal of ivory on the black market, causing security concerns,” she said. “Some museums, particularly in Europe, have been targets for thieves.”

Doug Bandow, senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, said the government's effort is misdirected.

“The problem of saving elephants is a genuine one,” he said. “But this is so incredibly intrusive ... it takes this issue well beyond ivory.”

People who own an instrument containing ivory or Brazilian rosewood needn't worry, Hoover said.

“The person with a guitar containing old ivory is OK,” he said.

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or

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