This is an incredibly involved and complex subject that we will continue to reflect upon. The short answer to this question is no, you can’t buy new pianos with ivory keys anymore. They have been outlawed on new pianos since the 1970s in the United States although some European manufacturers continued to offer ivory keys on select pianos into the 1980’s.
Now if you have a piano with ivory keys manufactured before the ban of ivory there are still issues. Selling a piano within the same country will most likely not be a problem for you yet (depending on your local laws). However, if you decide to move out of the country and you want to bring your piano with you it’s a risky proposition. If customs officials find that you are trying to ship a piano out of the country with ivory keys, they can impound the piano and you may have great difficulty rectifying the situation. Generally, you can’t ship a piano to another country with ivory keys unless you can prove the piano to be over 100 years.
Now in the United States, we are facing some legislation that may further limit the selling of ivory. The department of fish and wildlife is proposing new laws that would ban the transporting of ivory from state to state on pianos or anything else! So, if you own a piano with ivory keys, or a guitar with ivory inlays, a violin bow containing some ivory or anything else containing ivory, it will become illegal to transport it across state lines. There have actually been cases of orchestras going overseas where their bows have been confiscated by customs officials for containing ivory (and these can be some extremely expensive bows).
If this law comes to fruition it would mean that you won’t even be able to move your piano to a different state if it contains ivory keys. This is a huge problem for a lot of people and it can be a very expensive proposition to have to replace your piano keys simply because they contain ivory. There have been raids of antique auctions and stores where officials have taken massive quantities of old jewelry, artwork, and other objects that contain old ivory. In China, they have even destroyed a large number of irreplaceable pieces of art in their quest to stop the trade of ivory. This is a case of good intentions gone awry. The illegal trade of ivory is a booming industry and the attempt to stop this is by confiscating all ivory and making it illegal to transport at all. The slaying of elephants for new ivory is barbaric and it really is a problem – specifically in the domestic Chinese market. The American market is not as big in illegal ivory but it has not stopped officials from creating new laws to tightly enforce the trade and transport of ivory – no matter how old it is.
The sentiment of these proposed laws is in the right place but the practice is illogical. To ban the sale or transport of a piano with ivory keys – where the elephant died almost 100 years ago – seems pointless. If you feel strongly about this the only way to stop it is to write to your local officials and voice your concerns. There are many people who deal in vintage instruments, art and jewelry containing ivory watching the progress of legislation very closely.
Is it possible to remove the ivory from pianos and replace them with plastic? Yes; but not without some significant work. Ivory keys are typically thinner than plastic so the wood on the keys might need to be filed down in order to fit properly and you may be forced to do some key leveling and other work as well. Beyond that, the ivory keys are irreplaceable and it would be a shame to have to remove them long after the elephants died. Hopefully, there is an effective way to stop the slaughter of elephants without impacting the sale, trade, and transport of old objects containing ivory.
If you have any questions or comments about ivory keys on pianos please contact me directly Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729