CITES Gone Mad

Those of you who know me ( or pay really close attention) know that, in real life, I’m a film editor and graphic artist. I’ve just been finishing a documentary on Franz Liszt (arguably the worlds first rock star). The producer of the film is a concert pianist and she told me a story that gave me pause. It is a story of government intervention gone mad. First of all, let me say that I believe that conservation of species is the right thing. I also believe common sense always trumps the letter of the law, especially when the letter of the law is seriously flawed. CITES, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is seriously flawed. I understand trying to crush the marketplace for endangered animals and plants but when an item was manufactured before CITES with the endangered item as an integral part of that item, it should be exempt. As I understand it, some things are and some things aren’t. I had a problem with a guitar coming from Mexico and finally convinced the Fish and Wildlife service and Customs that it was pre-CITES, so I guess it works for Brazilian Rosewood-although for some reason, they were also citing the mahogany neck as well.  But, if your instrument happens to be a piano with ivory keys, look out. The producer of the film, Ophra Yerushalmi makes her living as a pianist. She was in France and fell in love with a Rosewood (probably Brazilian) Érard grand piano. It was Liszt’s piano of choice as well. She bought it and had it shipped to the US from France aboard  an Air France cargo plane. But it was stopped at JFK and was refused Customs clearance by the Fish and Wildlife Service who cited both CITES and the Elephant Act even though the proper CITES forms were filled out. Ms. Yerushalmi got on the phone to the bureaucrats and was told “the law is the law”.  It didn’t matter that this was her livelihood-as much a part of her work as a hammer is to a carpenter. She was given two choices. The piano could go back or the ivory on the keys could go back. Shipping the entire piano back, at her expense, was cost prohibitive, so she did the only thing she could do. She called her piano techs in and they went out to JFK and removed all the ivory from the keys. At least Fish and Wildlife didn’t do it themselves. The little packet of ivories was shipped back to France to sit in a warehouse and do what? Nothing, is what. It was a stupid act with stupid consequences perpetrated by our government in the name of conservation. What were they going to do? Turn it back into elephant tusks for some poor elephant who was missing one? The elephant whose tusks this ivory came from is dead and has been dead for many years. Removing the ivory is not going to bring it back. Prohibiting the import of the piano is not going to stop elephant poaching either. Can you imagine selling a valuable guitar to someone in France and having the government tear off the fingerboard because it’s made of Brazilian Rosewood? I’m no Republican but I can relate to their desire to keep government from becoming overbearing and intrusive.  I’ve been lucky to have had only two run ins with the CITES law but I fear more is in the offing. This happened more than 15 years ago and I’m happy to report that the Erard has its ivories back due to the outrage of the French people when this was made public. I don’t know how it got done but I’m very happy it did. An elephant died for that beautiful piano. It wasn’t endangered then and there was no law protecting elephants.  We should be spending our money and effort protecting the ones that are still alive and leave the dead ones alone.

5 Responses to “CITES Gone Mad”

  1. Green Eagle says:

    Lucky for us 335 fans than they were all made in the U.S.

  2. OK Guitars says:

    We are indeed. It’s a good thing most of us don’t collect Vox (guitars), Hofners, Burns or Framus. I don’t think there’s any CITES protected stuff in amplifiers or we’d be in trouble here. Although decent Mullards are becoming extinct.

  3. RB says:

    In this area, government beaurocrats have way too much discretionary power and control to interpret the law any way they see fit. We’ve all heard countless CITE’s-related stories, and now this one, showing glaring inconsistencies and misapplications. “Common sense” and “beaurocrat” are at polar opposites.

  4. bigsunburstgibson says:

    I love the US. I love the country, its people, its history, its guitars and what it stands for. I am sure you have already guessed that there’s a big “however” coming soon. And there is. However, US bureaucracy really sucks – narrow / smallmindedness gone completely mad. Kafkaesque in the extreme. Daft, humourless mini-dictators abusing people. When I visited the US from the UK it sometimes took longer to get through US immigration control than cross the Atlantic. Moscow was a doddle by comparison….

  5. OK Guitars says:

    I’m with you. I think that government has gotten way too invasive. I think corporate America has gotten way too invasive (are they really part of the Government now?). I think we have lost more freedom in the past, say, 100 years than most people realize. with the possible exception of Prohibition, there has never been another time when Government was so involved with our day to day lives. All this under the guise of “protecting our freedom.” There is also the phenomenon of the petty fiefdom. You got some poor slob working for the Fish and Wildlife Commission who can confiscate a guitar or two to prove (to himself) how powerful he is before he goes home and gets yelled at by his wife for forgetting the milk she told him to pick up. TSA folks are even worse.

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