The UK Ivory Act: Buying & Selling Old Pianos

The UK Ivory Act: Buying & Selling Old Pianos

Did you know that 6th June (2022) is being called ‘Ivory Day’? It may seem strange to think of ivory being discussed in the 21st century, but as the material has been widely banned across all walks of products, from jewellery to cutlery and of course historically…piano keys, new laws are now coming into place.

The use of ivory is a bit a black mark on the world of piano and was originally used as it was a durable, porous material that stopped pianists from slipping off the keys, however thankfully modern synthetic innovation has now succeeded that of the natural material and almost no pianos made today use ivory in their production.

Elephant ivory was once used for piano keys

Chances are that for 95% of pianos out there today, you do not need to do anything and it's incredibly unlikely that your instrument does use ivory. That being said however, these new laws do matter for those who perhaps own a historical instrument that does have ivory components, those who are looking to sell one that does or if you are searching for a particular historical instrument that you are unsure has ivory keys or not.

The UK Ivory act was passed in 2018 but finally comes into effect this June and with it comes a wide variety of rules and regulations for what can and can not be sold, exchanged and exported within the UK…so if you do have one of the above instruments it’s important to know the new laws or you could face fines of up to £250,000 or even imprisonment!

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What is the Ivory Act?

In its simplest form, the act states that from 6th June, it will be illegal to trade in any items containing elephant ivory. Whilst rare, there are still pianos out there that contain ivory and it is important to note that the organisation who will be monitoring this act APHA (Animal and Plant Health Agency) assumes all ivory has come from elephants unless you can absolutely prove otherwise.

This act does not just apply to pianos however and also for musical instruments including vintage guitars with ivory fret boards, antique boxwood clarinets with ivory joints, and violin bows with ivory tips.

Are Certain Instruments Be Exempt From The Ivory Act?

The act in particular takes into consideration that there may be historical instruments out there that contain ivory and that these instruments may still be preserved. As such, there is an exemption for musical instruments made before 1975 with less than 20% ivory by material volume. That means that those pianos built before 1975, unless they feature an excessive amount of ivory, will be exempt.

However Ii the instrument was made from 1975 onwards and contains any ivory, no matter how small the amount, it can’t be traded as it is and there is no exemption.

This doesn’t however mean that there is nothing to do for those who possess a pre-1975 instrument as your instrument must still be registered regardless of it’s age before they can be subject to any transaction.  This means that until the instrument is registered, it is illegal to:

  • Buy the instrument
  • Accept the instrument in part-exchange
  • Offer the instrument for sale or hire (this includes displaying the instrument in store or online)
  • Sell the instrument
  • Hire the instrument
  • Facilitate any of the above

Registration is free and can be done on the Government Website here.

A piano with ivory keys


I’m Looking To Purchase An Instrument That May Contain Traces Of Ivory

As mentioned, whilst these instruments are incredibly rare, they are still out there and can be rather sought after, particularly the likes of some historical Steinway pianos or Bechstein instruments. If you buy an instrument, offer it for sale or hire on behalf of a customer, or take it in part-exchange, you need proof that the owner has registered the instrument for exemption. 

Once you’ve purchased a registered instrument or taken it in part exchange you will still need to apply for a new exemption to offer the instrument for sale or hire (each registration covers only one change of ownership).


I’m Looking To Restore An Instrument That Contains Ivory

When it comes to restoration, there is no exception for the use of ivory, even if it is reclaimed ivory. For those who currently have ivory based instruments that are in need or repair, the key facings will need to be replaced with a more modern synthetic material. Whilst some may argue that this destroys the personality of the instrument, in our opinion, it’s worth it to help prevent the black market ivory trade continuing any further and taking pianos (one of the previous biggest offenders of ivory use) out of the market entirely.

At Millers we are fully welcoming the ivory act and are glad to be putting the rather archaic history of ivory use in the piano world behind us for good. Want to learn more about Ivory Laws? Read this guide by the Music Industries Association, or the Government Website here.


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