Jay Ifshin, of Ifshin Violins near Berkeley, California, sent a letter May 15 to President Barack Obama voicing his displeasure with new federal regulations restricting the international ivory trade. Here’s how the letter went:

Dear President Obama,

As a violin maker, small business owner and musician, I felt compelled to write you concerning legislation by executive order that will have a profound and disturbing effect on the world of classical music.

For more than 200 years virtually every violinist who has ever played has used and to this day continues to use violin bows which were made originally incorporating a very small piece of ivory attached to one end of the bow. This one millimeter thick piece of ivory served several purposes both structural and decorative. In the days before plastics and other synthetics, the regular replacing of the bow hair as well as the daily use while performing necessitated strengthening the thin walls at the delicate head of the bow.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, worldwide awareness of the brutal killing of elephants in order to obtain ivory resulted in the initial much needed agreements such as CITES and other legislation for their protection.

For almost 30 years, bow makers, together with their trade organizations such as the Violin Society of America and American Federation of Violin & Bow Makers, have been working with IPCI , U.S. Fish & Game and other government agencies in order to help craft legislation that would allow for the protection of endangered animal and wood species while finding ways for bow makers to continue making bows for the world’s musicians.

Over the last several decades bow makers have been using prehistoric mammoth, silver, gold as well as other materials instead of elephant ivory. There is no bow maker who wants to be a part of the useless, unjustifiable and unconscionable killing of elephants.

You may be aware of some recent seizures of violin bows from world-class musicians coming to the U.S. in order to perform with their orchestras. The U.S. customs agents have difficulty distinguishing between legal and allowable white colored bow tips and illegal ivory. It is easier for them to just confiscate any questionable violin bow.

However, traveling orchestras and individual musicians are not the only ones affected by the legislation.

Many retired musicians as well as private collectors in the U.S. have bows which were acquired legally many years and even decades ago. Some were inherited from their parents with no sales receipts other than being told the violin and bow came from grandmom.

At the time these bows were purchased or first brought into the U.S., no paperwork was ever asked for or required.  Fifty or seventy five years ago a typical musician might have purchased a used violin in Europe and a bow was included in the case.

These bows have been used on a daily basis by working musicians. Now, just this year, these musicians, their adult children as well as collectors are being told that they can’t sell their bows unless they produce some sort of proper paperwork. How can musicians or collectors be expected to produce paperwork which never existed?

The purchase of these bows often represents a sizeable investment by the working musicians and for many years these musicians were counting on the sale of their bows and violins as an important part of their retirement. During those years of daily playing, many bows both antique (more than 100 years old) and vintage (less than 100 years old) have increased dramatically in value. It is not uncommon to price a fine Dominique Peccatte bow at $150,000 or a Francois Tourte in excess of $400,000. Mid 20th century bows in fine condition such as Sartory or Fetique are seeing prices between $20,000-$40,000.  Many working musicians are not a well-paid lot. Now, unfortunately, they risk being criminalized when the executive order becomes law. 

At one of the meetings with the Fish and Game Department, I overheard a musician ask what was the government form number that would have been used around 1920 or 1945 for a violin bow. The Fish and Game representative could not answer the question because apparently no government form existed at that time.

Now, because of this legislation, the bows can’t be sold and in some cases even transported because of the small bit of ivory. Even if the ivory were to be removed from the old bow and replaced with a synthetic tip, the value of the bow will be diminished because it is no longer all original.

What is surprising and disturbing is that in contrast to its zeal to go after violin bows which have been in the U.S. for decades, the U.S. government has allowed and until recently continued to allow, apparently with only minor restrictions, the big game sport hunting of elephant trophies! Some reports of the number of licenses issued exceed 900! If one were to estimate that an average elephant trophy with tusks would have produced in excess of 20,000 bows, a few elephant trophies with tusks far exceed the total numbers of bows with ivory that have ever been brought to the U.S!

There are objects and trinkets that incorporate ivory such as carved chess sets, jewelry, or dominoes etc… However, a violin bow is NOT a trinket. It is the only working tool that incorporates a very small piece of ivory and has been in constant daily use by musicians unchanged for more than 2 centuries.

Thomas Jefferson, violinist as well as our celebrated third president claimed that “ music is an enjoyment, the deprivation of which can not be calculated ..”  “..music is invaluable where a person has an ear. It furnishes a delightful recreation for the hours of respite from the cares of the day, and lasts us through life.” It was the passion of his soul.  Upon Jefferson’s death his violins were sent to be sold to pay his debts. Today he would not be allowed to sell his bows if they contained even a tiny piece of ivory.

I recommend including an exemption to the pending legislation for old violin/cello bows and not requiring the owners to produce paperwork which never existed and impossible to show.

Government confiscation and/or fining the owner of a violin bow made 75 years ago which was bought legally at that time and has been in constant use in the US ever since, will do very little to stop current elephant poaching.

A fundamental question is how can the White House and Department of Fish and Game blame a musician or some bow collectors for an increase in elephant poaching if bow makers have ceased using ivory almost 3 decades ago?

Another area of concern are the tax, insurance and estate issues that will unfortunately and inevitably arise if the proposed legislation is signed into law. If the majority of vintage or antique bows which have a small ivory tip but lack old paperwork demonstrating when the bow first arrived in the US, then the bow will be prohibited from being sold or transported in the US and therefore will become essentially worthless. Up to now, professional musicians were allowed to list on their income tax return their violins and bows as business equipment and tools necessary for their profession.

As for insurance and appraisals, if a bow becomes instantly and permanently unsalable if the proposed legislation is signed because it lacks old paperwork, what value can it be appraised or insured for? Will insurance companies even bother to insure the bow if it is “illegal”

I happen to own a violin bow that I bought many years ago from a man whose wife was an orchestra violinist. This man was a soldier stationed in France at the end of World War 2. While he was stationed in France, his wife wrote him and asked if he would be able to buy her a bow made by the finest bow maker he could find working in France at that time. He located the finest bow maker he could, bought the bow and presented it to her upon his return to the States after the war. The bow is a rarity because it is branded with the year 1945. Most bow makers, if they branded at all, usually only used their name and not a date of manufacture. Both the husband and wife are long deceased and there is no official paperwork showing when this soldier carried the bow back to the States. This bow, even though clearly and without question was manufactured and brought to the States long before CITES, would be deemed unsalable and valueless.

I recommend including an exemption to the pending legislation for vintage and antique violin/cello bows; an exemption that excuses the owners from the requirement to produce paperwork which in most cases never existed and is in almost all cases impossible to show.

Musicians today should not be held responsible or penalized for actions in which they had no hand, but on which their careers rely. An exemption would ease the weight of consequences, while maintaining the integrity of the existing protective laws. I see this small change as a way for musicians, conservationists, and lawmakers alike to move forward on this issue.


Jay Ifshin