How to get your instrument past the ivory police

How to get your instrument past the ivory police


norman lebrecht

July 23, 2015

The ivory ban imposed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and followed by some other nations has left many musicians in a state of high anxiety about getting their instruments through airports.



Joey Grimmer, incoming principal bassoon of Kennedy Center and Washington National Opera orchestra, has compiled an indispensable guide to instruments and ivory.

From ascertaining whether you have any ivory to learning how to obtain the appropriate instrument passport, you absolutely need to read and keep this guide if you want to travel in peace.

Read Joey’s guide exclusively here. Then save it.

And share with your friends.

Joey writes:

If you are going to travel, you have 3 options:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Get a CITES Musical Instrument Certificate and use it every time you travel internationally
  3. Have the ivory removed

I know some people who have opted for option 1 and I highly discourage it. These instruments are many of our livelihoods and Congress has given the FWS the authority to seize property that contains undocumented ivory. This is no idle threat and we have seen instances of ivory being confiscated.


  • Jon says:

    Musicians flying… somebody should make a video game about it!

    Now, after the ivory has been removed and it has been replaced by a nice plastic ring that looks like ivory, can they still stop Mr Grimmer at the airport customs because his instrument contains parts that look like ivory?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if removing the ivory isn’t the real end of the story and the pain will continue…

  • Joey Grimmer says:

    Hi, Jon.

    Great point! I had my repairman write up an affidavit confirming the destruction of the ivory and its replacement with plastic. I’ll add it to the article.

    • Dave T says:

      Why does the plastic replacement have to be made to look like ivory (i.e. white, or “ivory” in color)? Make it black, blue, marble. This would reduce confusion significantly. And maybe one or two audience members would notice and admire the musician for their moral stand.

      • Joey Grimmer says:

        There is no rule saying that the replacement plastic has to be white; there’s no rule saying that the replacement has to be plastic at all. Others have been replacing their ivory with wood or metal rings. I chose to go with the white plastic because that’s the color that I’m used to seeing at the end of my instrument.

  • CA says:

    So, I wonder when the instrument police will decide that various woods (ie rosewood) need documentation. Where does it end?

    • Scott Fields says:

      Brazilian rosewood already requires documentation. Instruments suspected of containing BR can be confiscated at international borders. In Germany, authorities have aggressively policed luthiers, who were required to halt production until their woods were documented. In the USA, the mega-manufacturer of guitars, Gibson, was raided because of possibly improperly documented woods from India and Madagascar.

      I have sold my Brazilian-rosewood-containing instruments because touring with them wasn’t worth the paperwork and expense. For the replacement instruments, I had the luthiers provide bills of materials, copies of which I carry with me.

    • Max Grimm says:

      It doesn’t end for a while. If you have several hours you wish to lose, you can read the current list of things that, if found in/on/around your instrument or your person, will cause someone to take offense.

    • Dave T says:

      CA: Destruction of wildlife, habitats, and endangered species (animal and plant) is a serious global problem. “It” ends when these are brought under control. Musicians have a roll to play in this. Sorry if it inconveniences you.
      To the “instrument police” I say: bravo, take a bow.

      • Scott Fields says:

        Regarding new instruments, I’m with you all the way. None of these restricted materials are vital to music-making. But one of the instruments I sold to a collector was made for me more than three decades ago from wood that that was harvested fifty years before that. Although its replacement contains only unrestricted (for now), and (where possible) plantation-grown, woods, there was still some environmental impact to its construction.

        Finding a better way to allow musicians to travel with existing instruments would prevent musicians from having to choose between having existing instruments altered (which is sometimes not possible, such as for the sides and backs of guitars) and having substitutes constructed. The instrument passport, as currently structured, is not practical.

      • Max Grimm says:

        I wholeheartedly agree with your first point but will not applaud the “instrument police”. To use an animal inspired analogy, more often than not, the “instrument police” is as effective as a cadaver dog trying to sniff out cocaine.

  • Max Grimm says:

    From the linked article:
    A spokeswoman for the US Customs and Border Protection said late Tuesday that the agency was only enforcing the international ban against illegal ivory shipments.

    “It is ultimately up to US Fish and Wildlife to determine the origins of the seized ivory and authorize any release of these seized items back to their owners…”

    To me this translates into your instrument passport, documentation and affidavits essentially being null and void in the eyes of the august US Fish and Wildlife Service, which seems to want to rely exclusively on its own perspicacious expertise in these matters.

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    Advise towards not-USApassportholders-musicians: avoid the USA further on.
    C’est si simple comme bonjours.