Alexander Chancellor

America’s crazy war on old pianos

Too-tough rules on ivory may hurt elephants, not help them

America's crazy war on old pianos
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More than 20 years ago, when I was living in New York, I wrote an article about the mutilation by the United States government of a fine old piano on the pretext of saving the African elephant. The piano was a 1920 concert grand from the once famous Parisian house of Érard, from which came the favourite piano of Franz Liszt. It had been bought in Paris by the Israeli–American pianist Ophra Yerushalmi, a huge admirer of the Hungarian virtuoso, and flown by her at great expense to New York, where it had been seized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on the grounds that it had ivory-coated keys.

Well, of course, until recently all piano keys had ivory on them, and this particular piano was then 73 years old. But the Fish and Wild Life Service would not release it to Mrs Yerushalmi until the ivory had been stripped from it and returned to France. This was done in accordance with the 1988 African Elephant Conservation Act, which had been enacted in response to an international agreement to ban trade in ivory; and it prohibited the importation to the United States of any African elephant ivory, new or old, worked or unworked, unless the article containing it was more than 100 years old. So the old Érard piano came to languish in Mrs Yerushalmi’s New York apartment, unplayed and unplayable, a useless, mutilated object.

The timing of the new law was strange because, following an earlier decline in the African elephant population, numbers had picked up again, and in some places excessively so. Elephants are charming in their way, but they also attack people and trample their crops. We would hate them to die out, of course, but at the same time we don’t want too many of them. According to some of the best expert opinion in the conservation field, there was no need for such a ruthless ban on ivory trading. But such was the hysteria whipped up by the media and wildlife charities that public opinion persuaded the American government to adopt this stupid measure. You’d think that by now it might have recognised its foolishness; but on the contrary, it has recently made the constraints on ivory trading tighter still.

Another piano story has now been in the news. An upright piano built by Steinway in New York in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln was president, is being denied re-entry into the United States because its owner, an American who took it with him to Japan when he moved there for a while, has failed to provide proof of its age and provenance. No matter that Steinway believes it to be the first-ever upright piano made in the United States, it will retain its pariah status until there is unimpeachable documentation to prove it. Under the latest regulations, it is more or less impossible to import, export, buy, or sell any object containing ivory without such documentation; and in cases involving old musical instruments, guns, chess sets, bracelets, walking sticks, or other ivory antiques, there is seldom any paperwork available.

Not only is this very hard on people who find that their once valuable collections of old ivory objects have become almost worthless; it is highly questionable whether it is of any help to the elephant. Elephant-decline panic is a bit like climate-change panic; it is based on controversial statistics and disagreement about its causes. But even if we accept that the African elephant population is in free-fall, and that this is almost entirely because of illegal poaching to feed the huge demand for ivory in China, we must surely wonder whether a ban on selling an ivory-handled Georgian silver teapot in New York is going to make much difference.

Some people argue, on the contrary, that these new American regulations will cause ivory prices to rise dramatically and thus boost the black market and encourage more poaching, as may the government’s bizarre decision last November to crush six tons of confiscated contraband ivory rather than make it available to meet a now desperate need for ivory to restore or otherwise refurbish damaged antiques. Long live Nellie, Jumbo and all the other elephants. It would be an awful shame if America’s underrated proclivity for petty, rigid bureaucracy were to hasten their demise.