How will upcoming restrictions for sale and shipping of domestic, long-ago imported Ivory affect your ownership and the value of your coveted, Ivory-key grand piano – possibly a family heirloom? Will its market value decrease if it can only be legally sold in the State in which your piano resides? Will regulations prevent it being willed to a family member living out-of-State? Will the once valuable asset of Ivory keytops now become a liability for companies rebuilding and selling vintage pianos? These are some of the questions I am asking myself at the dawn of a new era.

In the late 1970s, new legislation prohibited import of Ivory products into the U.S. (“Ivory ban”). European piano manufacturers, like Hamburg Steinway & Sons and Bosendorfer, had an extended export window until 1989, making it legal to ship new pianos with Ivory keytops to the U.S. I have not ever seen a grand piano with Ivory keytops that was younger than 1989.

One of the most regrettable decisions of my career were tied to having to order a piano rebuilders to remove a legitimate, perfect sets of Ivory keytops from a pre-Ivory ban piano – for no other reason than to comply with shipping regulations. This unfortunate waste of a most precious resource likely will become a daily practice, even if a piano just will ship from Los Angeles to Phoenix, or New York City to Newark.

If you are uncertain about the keytop material of your existing piano, these three hints will help:

  1. Ivory appears cooler to the touch, than plastic key tops. Simply extend your flat fingers over the front of a piano keyboard to conduct this test.
  2. Piano manufacturers like Bösendorfer and Steinway & Sons used only the two top grades of available Ivory for covering piano keys. A dominant feature of high-grade Ivory is the “grain” that it readily apparent on surface of a well-lit Ivory keyboard. The cover photo for this segment clearly shows this grain pattern (somewhat similar to finely grained wood).
  3. With only a few exceptions, American-made Ivory keyboards used two pieces of Ivories to cover the top of a piano key – a wider front piece and a narrower tail piece. The glue joint between these two pieces shows an ever so narrow line which helps in determining Ivory keytops.
    (European manufacturers used one-piece Ivory keytops that do not have that glue joint).

I would be interested in your reflections on this issue.

Link to March 20, 2014 NEW YORK TIMES article on upcoming changes in Ivory regulations.