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Musical Instruments and CITES

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Importing, Exporting or Travelling with Musical Instruments: What you need to know about CITES regulations

Musical instruments frequently contain parts made from endangered or threatened species of plants and animals. Some of the most common examples include:

Elephant Ivory: Used for nuts and saddles on guitars, tuning pegs, bowed instrument and bagpipe fittings and also for inlays. This is an Appendix I species in which all international trade is strictly controlled.

Tortoiseshell: Used for picks, pickguards, inlays and bow fittings. This is another Appendix I species for which full import and export certificates are required. It should be noted that the term ‘tortoiseshell’ actually refers to the keratin scutes of specific marine (sea) turtles, and not to the scutes from terrestrial tortoises. All marine turtles are now listed on Appendix 1. The species that has suffered most from exploitation for tortoiseshell is the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), though other species such as the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) have also been impacted by this trade.

Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra): Used for the backs and sides, bridges, and fingerboards of guitars and also for violin bow fittings. Mandolins may also feature Brazilian rosewood components. Brazilian rosewood was granted CITES Appendix 1 status in 1992.

It should be noted that in addition to CITES protection, some species are also covered by additional, domestic, legislation. For example, in the US elephant ivory and tortoiseshell are both subject to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the provisions of the Lacey Act within the US (the effect of which is to make it a criminal offence to transport across state lines in some circumstances). Ivory is also subject to additional restrictions under the terms of the African Elephant Conservation Act. Walrus ivory is covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the UK, these items are regulated by COTES legislation (Control of Trade in Endangered Species).

Frequently Asked Questions on Conservation Legislation and Musical Instruments

Q. How do I know if I need a permit to import or export a guitar?

A. If it contains Brazilian rosewood, ivory or genuine tortoiseshell components – even a very small amount, such as a binding, overlay or inlay piece - you definitely need import and export permits, a pre-convention exemption certificate, or all three depending upon your destination and point of departure. For other materials you can check the updated listings at

Q. I am not importing (or exporting) the guitar for commercial purposes, but for private use. Do I still need these permits?

A. Generally, yes, if it contains any CITES Appendix I materials.

Q. My guitar was made in 1968, long before Brazilian rosewood was added to CITES Appendix 1. Doesn’t this mean it is exempt and that therefore no permit is required?

A. Not exactly. What it means is that you qualify for a pre-convention certificate on the grounds of pre-convention origin. See other question on ivory nuts and saddles, however. Martin continued to use these during the period your guitar was made. If the original nut and saddle are present, this complicates matters considerably (see below).

Q. How many permits do I need to transport a CITES Appendix 1 item?

A. Normally, you need a) An export permit issued by the country you are departing and b) An import permit issued by the country you are entering. These permits can take several months to obtain, so plan ahead. Most management authorities levy a charge for these permits.

Q. Do I need these permits just for a temporary visit?

A. Yes.

Q. What happens if I travel without the permits?

A. Your instrument can be seized and you can face heavy fines, or even imprisonment in addition. Customs officers are trained to recognise these materials, and can call upon outside experts in cases of questionable identification or to resolve false claims. Even though you may hear of people who have “got away with it” it is extremely inadvisable to attempt to bring items through customs illegally.

Q. How can I prove my instrument only contains Appendix 1 materials that were taken before the convention came into effect?

A. This depends. In the case of a guitar from a well-documented maker, the serial number should help resolve the date of manufacture. The relevant authorities would normally accept this evidence. If there is no serial number, and no other reliable dating information, other evidence may be required, such as a sworn affidavit from a reputable expert. In some cases it may be difficult, or even impossible, to provide adequate documentation. In such cases, your application for a permit on ‘pre-convention’ origin grounds may be denied.

Q. Can I legally carry tortoiseshell picks with me when I travel?

A. Only if the picks themselves (not the material they are made from, see next question) are at least 100 years old (and you can prove it). In that case, you would qualify for a pre-convention or antiques exemption, for which you must apply for the relevant certificate. Be aware that some countries (including Canada) do not recognise any antiques exemptions. Accurately and convincingly proving the age of a guitar pick may well be almost impossible, however, so please note that the onus of proof of legality is on the importer/exporter (you), not upon customs officers to prove the reverse. In the absence of acceptable proof the items will be seized and you may be prosecuted.

Q. What about picks I have made myself from a 100 year-old antique hairbrush? Surely these must be legal?

A. This is a common misconception. In fact, they are categorically NOT legal. Once an antique (classified as an item 100 years old or more) has been “reworked”, in this case, converted from a hairbrush into a guitar pick, it automatically LOSES ITS EXEMPTION. There are no exceptions to this. In this case, while the original, unmodified antique hairbrush would qualify for a pre-convention exemption, provided it was adequately documented, the guitar picks obtained from it would not. They are, therefore, just as illegal as if they had been made from fresh tortoiseshell. It should also be noted that the internal sale of these items is equally illegal in some circumstances, for example, selling or transporting “reworked” tortoiseshell (or ivory) across state lines in the US.

There are further complicating factors with regard to “reworked” antiques, in that under the ESA (in the US) the item also loses exemption if it has been “bought, bartered, offered for sale or leased” at any time since it was subject to the Act. This is a complex area, and if you are intending any kind of transaction or transport of either elephant ivory or tortoiseshell within the US, you are advised to seek expert advice from a lawyer well versed in conservation legislation. Ignorance of the law is unfortunately not an excuse even if you make an innocent mistake and are caught.

Q. My Martin guitar, made in 1958, has Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and an original Elephant ivory nut and saddle. What do I need if I wish to take it with me on an international tour?

A. You need full CITES import/export/re-export permits for every stage of the journey. Your guitar pre-dates June 1992 with regard to the Dalbergia nigra, so would qualify for a pre-convention exemption, however, the presence of the Elephant ivory changes the situation dramatically. Only Elephant ivory predating June 1 1947 qualifies for exemption as pre-convention, or 100 years old under the antique exemption (if your departing or destination country recognises that particular clause). As your guitar includes later material, it does not qualify for any exemption. In such a case, I would advise removing the elephant ivory and replacing it with either bone or mammoth ivory, which is very similar but which is perfectly legal and requires no CITES permits. Even if your guitar had a CITES permit based upon pre-convention Brazilian rosewood, but upon inspection, was found to contain post-1947 ivory, it could be seized in its entirety and you could be fined.

Q. Are there other restrictions I need to know about?

A. Yes. When importing or exporting any instrument containing CITES Appendix 1 materials you can only enter and leave many countries (including the US) via either “Wildlife Designated”, “Plant Designated” or “Antique Designated” ports. Full lists of these are on the US Fish and Wildlife Service website ( You will need your CITES permits and Antique or Pre-convention documentation as appropriate for the inspector. Allow plenty of additional time to clear customs. If shipping an item as freight, you will need your bill of lading, airway bill and invoice in addition.

Q. What about the abalone inlays on my violin bow or banjo?

A. Only certain species are currently subject to the strictest controls. Currently, the common forms of abalone shell are not listed under CITES, although they have been proposed for Appendix II status. Presently, only the very rare White Abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) is listed under US domestic legislation as an Endangered Species, and this may not be imported, exported or otherwise traded. The ‘common’ abalone on your guitar or violin frog does not therefore currently require any permits.

Q. Can a guitar fitted with a fossilized Walrus ivory saddle be transported internationally without the need for permits, then

A. No. CITES permits are still required for all forms of fossilized Walrus ivory, or for any instrument containing such components. Fossilized mammoth (or mastodon) ivory is, however, exempt, as described above.

Q. I fitted a nut and saddle recently made from “pre-ban” elephant ivory. How can I get a CITES permit if I wish to take this guitar abroad?

A. You can’t. There is no adequate way to prove the origins of the material used on your guitar. An estimated 90% of material sold as “pre-ban” is of questionable origins (China alone imports several tons of illegal, poached, Elephant ivory annually and re-exports it under various dubious circumstances and under various false descriptions, such as “antique netsuke”. This is certainly one source of some alleged “pre-ban” ivory now in circulation). Because it is impossible to adequately trace the origins and properly document the material on your guitar, you are not able to meet the requirements for CITES permits. If you travel without such permits, you risk the confiscation of the entire instrument.

Q. I purchased a new Brazilian rosewood guitar in 2003. I now wish to travel abroad with it on my next tour. What paperwork do I need?

A. You need full export, import and re-export permits for each country. Your main problem is going to be proving that the materials used on your particular guitar were harvested and legally exported/imported prior to June 1992. If you cannot produce such evidence, your application for CITES permits will be refused. You should contact the manufacturer to see if they can be of any assistance in providing the necessary evidence.

Q. I have a late 19th Century violin bow with original ivory and tortoiseshell fittings. What documentation is needed if I with to travel with this bow?

A. You need a permit but will qualify for this as the item is over 100 years old, and is therefore classed as an antique (but note that not all countries allow any antique exemption, in which case full CITES import and export permits will be required). You must be prepared to document the age of the bow adequately. In this context, a sworn affidavit from a recognised specialist appraiser or expert (their credentials need to be beyond reproach, and clearly stated) is usually regarded as “adequate”. A scribbled note or receipt is not considered adequate. This evidence must accompany your application for the relevant certificate. Note that if the items has been repaired or modified with “new” ivory or tortoiseshell it will not longer be able to claim an “antiques” exemption. Your expert or appraiser needs to be able to confirm that no such repairs or replacements have taken place.

Q. My guitar is made of Honduras mahogany. Do I need a permit?

A. Not at this time. Only logs, boards, plywood and other materials in a “raw” un-worked state currently require CITES import and export permits.

Q. I have head about an exemption for “personal effects”, what can you tell me about this?

A. Worked ivory legally possessed in the United States can be re-exported and re-imported by US residents only as accompanied personal effects; HOWEVER, most other countries do not recognize this exemption, so you still need the permits. In the absence of the correct permits, the country you are visiting could seize the item. One case where this actually happened concerned a piano imported into New Zealand. This case also revealed just how differently various countries interpret and implement such exemptions:

Q. What happens to items seized by customs? Can I buy them back? Will I get them back if I pay the fine?

A. No. Not normally. They are often donated to museums or used in public displays to educate travellers about the risks of travelling with endangered species products without the required permits. You may see displays like this at many large airports. In some cases, seized items are destroyed.


Travelling internationally with musical instruments does require some familiarity with the CITES regulations. It is very easy to inadvertently contravene these admittedly very complicated laws. Wherever possible, avoid travelling with instruments containing any ivory, tortoiseshell or Brazilian rosewood components: the amount (and the cost) of the required paperwork is both substantial and time-consuming. Taking into account the additional risk of loss or damage due to airport baggage handlers, you may well conclude, as others have, that a legislation-free, ‘travel’ instrument is a very good investment indeed.

Important Disclaimer: the law on the import, export and internal trade and movement of endangered species items is exceptionally complex. In all cases, you should seek clarification from the relevant government agencies and if necessary, seek additional advice from a lawyer familiar with this aspect of environmental legislation before attempting to import, export or transport any item containing materials from endangered species.

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