Ivory II: Your Questions Answered


It has been great to hear from so many of you following my piece outlining the enforcement of the UK Ivory Act 2018.  I always enjoy hearing from colleagues across our membership and it’s nice to know that it was found to be helpful, but also to receive some good questions.  This post is like the difficult second album, and its purpose is to share your questions and the feedback I’ve given.

There’s certainly a consensus that this Act feels like an extra layer of unnecessary administration at a time when businesses have enough on their hands. Several members have pointed out that it won’t raise from the dead those elephants whose ivory was drawn and used in the past, or have any positive impact on the current and future protection of these beautiful animals already covered by the now well established CITES regulations.  It also makes some instruments from 1975-onwards commercially unviable, depending on their overall value and the cost of work to remove and replace any ivory content.  Unfortunately, and to coin a phrase I dislike, it is what it is.  All we can do is follow the law to avoid the cost (up to £250,000 fine and/or up to 5 years imprisonment) of being found in breach.

Here’s the questions I’ve been asked, and my answers…


How can I tell whether it’s ivory on an instrument?


  • Ivory has natural veining which isn’t obviously replicated visually on any synthetic substitute. Trying to do so would look tacky, and it’s the textured feel that matters.  As the ivory ages (and any ivory used on a musical instrument will now be at least 33 years old) that veining becomes more obvious.
  • UV light is commonly used to identify whether a material is ivory or synthetic. Ivory will show as bright blueish white under UV light, whereas plastic shows as a darker colour.
  • The age of the instrument is a useful gauge. If it was made by a reputable law-abiding manufacturer after 1989 (when the CITES ban on international ivory trade came into force), there won’t be any ivory content.  If it was made from 1975 onwards it is less likely to include ivory, but there is still a chance.
  • Most synthetic alternatives used across the last century are visually identifiable as plastic, with a sheen and whiteness under normal light that ivory doesn’t have. Look at a typical Bentley school piano and you’ll see what I mean.  This doesn’t apply where a synthetic material like Ivorite is used, but it’s still a helpful test in many cases.
  • I’ve been asked about guitar frets that look like ivory. Ivory simply isn’t strong enough to take the pressure placed upon guitar frets by steel strings and its ability to stand up to nylon or gut strings is also very questionable.  Unless the guitar is extremely old the chance of the frets being ivory is tiny.


Can I take an unregistered instrument with ivory content from a customer, as a favour?


Yes, so long as there is no transaction, including part-exchange or purchase by yourself.  If the customer is buying a new instrument from you and you are taking their previous instrument as a favour state clearly on your paperwork that no consideration has been given for it and reference the serial number.

If the instrument is pre-1975 and you intend to do anything with it involving any kind of transaction you need to register it for exemption.  If the instrument is worthless, you can either dispose of it, use it as a street piano, or gift it to help a person or organisation who can’t afford to buy an instrument at the time.  If you do gift it, make sure there’s an invoice showing clearly that it’s a gift and that no transaction has taken place.

If the instrument is from 1975 onwards, the information I gave in my first piece applies – it can’t be traded in any way unless you replace the ivory parts with synthetic alternatives.


What can I do to avoid this legislation getting in the way of a part-exchange agreement if the customer is ready to proceed?


  • Add a statement to your website asking potential customers to bring photos with them showing the whole instrument, any content they suspect may be ivory and any serial number. If you’re an expert in the instrument you are selling this, alongside reference materials such as the Piano Atlas, should give you sufficient basis on which to form a judgement.  You may wish to include a disclaimer within the paperwork, if you don’t already have one regarding the description and condition of the instrument to be part-exchanged.
  • Ask any customer phoning ahead of their visit to do the same. Likewise, if a potential customer makes an initial fact-finding visit to your showroom.
  • If your customer is a walk-in and the instrument they describe sounds as though it may contain ivory, proceed and include a disclaimer as suggested above.

If the transaction is to be completed online, simply adapt the above to suit.  In all these situations it’s a good idea to ask the customer to register their instrument for exemption (if it meets the requirements) as soon as possible to avoid any delays to them enjoying their new purchase.  Creating an information sheet summarising the Act and providing information about registration would be good and efficient practice.


Could I be seen as facilitating a breach of the Act if I am simply transporting the instrument?


There is no clear guidance on this, and I’ve asked the Animal and Plant Health Agency, but answers are predictably slow.

I don’t think so.  This would be a ridiculous hurdle and it isn’t a direct part of the transaction – you’re not giving or taking money or providing a platform for the sale to take place.

My suggestion?

  • If you are transporting the instrument from and to the current owner (as part of a house move, for example), within a family or between friends, there is surely no case to answer.
  • If you’re transporting an instrument that you’ve hired, sold or bought/taken in part-exchange you will already have done the paperwork.
  • If transporting an instrument that somebody else has completed a transaction for you could take the belt and braces approach of including a tick box on your booking form or invoice alongside space for your customer to enter the registration number for the exemption.

I’ll provide a firm update on this once I receive a reply from APHA.


A reminder of the essentials 

  • The UK Ivory Act 2018 makes it illegal to trade in items containing ivory
  • There is a standard exemption for musical instruments made before 1975 with less than 20% ivory content by material volume
  • Each instrument must be registered for exemption before it is offered for sale or hire or subject to any transaction, including sale, hire, part-exchange or purchase
  • A registration covers only one change of ownership and before the instrument is subject to a second transaction the exemption needs to be applied for again
  • Any instruments made from 1975 onwards which contain ivory must not be traded until the ivory content has been replaced with a synthetic alternative.

If you have any further questions now or in the future, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.

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