A Letter to Governor Christie of New Jersey Regarding Bill S.2012/A.3128

Dear Governor,

As a concert violinist and the wife of the former musical instrument conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I am appealing to you to reconsider the draconian bill banning the trade of all kinds of ivory in the state of New Jersey.

Historically, many musical instruments contain ivory parts, although those made in the United States in the past forty years or so have not used elephant ivory but, rather, cow bone or mammoth ivory, both of which were legal. However, violin bows from the 18th and 19th centuries and important keyboard instruments – such as pianos, harpsichords and organs – will have ivory fittings. The bill as proposed could easily lead to either the needless disfiguration of these art objects or even their destruction.

Many of the greatest paintings, going back to the Renaissance, contain the pigment “ivory black,” which was made by charring ivory. Will collectors of these paintings, who wish to sell them, be forced to scrape away ivory black areas in order to comply with this law? Will art museums’ holdings – such as those in New Jersey – be devalued through this total ban?

Although the ban is on trade or “possession with intent to sell,” the temporary confiscation at JFK airport earlier this month of bows used by the Budapest Orchestra (even though the players were in compliance with current regulations) indicates that, above all, it is the perceived possession of the material for “commercial” use that is the prevailing force at hand. The players were clearly not here to sell their bows, and yet they were treated as if they were criminals and not artists. Some were forced to borrow bows for their concerts at Lincoln Center. (It is not easy for a customs official – or even a conservation scientist – to distinguish ivory from bone or even plastic without conducting sophisticated tests.)

With this mindset, the string players of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, for example, may be unable to use their best bows – or obliged, at the least, to remove the tiny ivory facing at the tip. Pianos, harpsichords and organs made with ivory keys will be unsellable without first vandalizing the instrument. (Many historic woodwind instruments are also made of ivory.)