JFK Airport Customs Officials Seize Budapest Orchestra's Violin Bows

Tuesday, June 03, 2014 - 11:52 AM

Newark Liberty Airport Newark Liberty Airport (Flickr/jersey2bronx)

Updated June 4 at 3:30 pm

The Budapest Festival Orchestra says that U.S. Customs officials at JFK Airport seized seven bows from the orchestra's string section on Saturday, the result of new federal regulations banning the commercial import of elephant ivory.

The Hungarian orchestra was traveling from Budapest to Avery Fisher Hall, where it gave a pair of Dvorak concerts on Sunday and Monday. The musicians landed in Newark; the instruments were shipped on a separate plane to JFK, where the string bows were abruptly confiscated. They were held in cargo cases and returned to the orchestra on Tuesday after it paid a $525 fine.

Orchestra spokesman Adèl Tossenberger said in an e-mail that the seized bows did not contain any ivory and the orchestra received a certificate from a Hungarian expert verifying this. But U.S. regulations stipulate that a musical instrument containing African elephant ivory may be brought into the country only if it is accompanied by a specific CITES musical instrument certificate, which verifies that it was purchased before February 25, 2014.

With hours to spare before Sunday's 3 pm concert, Lincoln Center officials helped the orchestra to borrow bows from string players in the New York area.

Proper paperwork was part of the problem. Claire Cassel, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), wrote that an agency inspector "found on physical examination that the tips of seven of the bows imported by the Budapest Festival Orchestra were made from elephant ivory. (The material clearly exhibited certain types of lines – called Schreger lines – that are only found in elephant ivory.)"

Cassel added that the orchestra did not have a CITES permit for the bows in question. "The Service refused entry for the seven bows and issued a ticket for the CITES violation. The orchestra was allowed to re-export the bows when it left the United States; no bows were seized or forfeited to the U.S. government."

The confiscation was first reported on Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc blog.

The incident comes after the USFWS announced on May 15 that it was relaxing rules enacted earlier this year that would have prohibited most traveling musicians from entering the U.S. with instruments that contain small amounts of African elephant ivory. But the League of American Orchestras, which has been lobbying for more flexible rules, has said that "serious concerns" remain in the permit process, and that "complicated enforcement procedures" remain a problem at U.S. ports of entry.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra's troubles come days after Austria's Kleine Zeitung reported that the Munich Philharmonic nearly cancelled three performances at Carnegie Hall in April after that orchestra's string players could not produce CITES certificates for their bows. Only through the intervention of Carnegie officials and the Germany Embassy was the orchestra able to clear its instruments through customs.

The illegal ivory trade is believed to be responsible for the death of more than 35,000 African elephants per year, or about 96 each day. Nearly all bow-makers stopped using elephant ivory around 1980 but historical authentication remains a sticking point.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is scheduled to return to Avery Fisher Hall next January.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Budapest Festival Orchestra instruments arrived at Newark Liberty Airport. While the musicians' plane did arrive in Newark, the instruments traveled on a separate flight to JFK, according to Lincoln Center.


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Comments [17]

ken from Canada

the stupid part is killing an animal because you think a part of it looks good to you. Maybe your head would look good to me on a pole!
Not much of a difference to the elephant

Jan. 18 2016 06:11 PM
PictureThis from USA

The US Customs officials just made themselves look like an ass. And greedy to boot. These guys were musicians, and they were obviously not trying to engage in ivory trade, regardless of whether their bow tips were made of ivory or not. This is the stupidity that gets projected to the rest of the world, doesn't matter what we do that's for the best interests of anyone, it's only the stupidity that will be amplified. And this certainly counts as stupid.

Jan. 05 2015 02:57 PM
Bob from Los Angeles

Mr. Wise writes well and carefully he says as to poaching "it is believed" 96 elephants are poached each day for ivory. I wonder who believes this. The numbers these people throw around are all over the board. I have seen the number stated as high as 65,000. At least 20,000 elephants die each year from natural causes like age and disease. Are they throwing them into the mix just to boost the number?

Supposedly, by allowing the Budapest group in with ivory tips on their bows, the people who watch them perform (even though they cannot see the tips of the bows) will be encouraged to buy ivory for themselves, etc. etc. Really, you can't make this stuff up.

This ban, in fact all US ivory policy, makes no sense and is imperialistic and racist. It tells the Africans they cannot even sell the tusks of an old bull whose time has come. It blames the Asians, the Yellow Horde, as some comic strip buck-toothed mob demanding more and more ivory, which is not the case at all. A recent survey of the Chinese ivory market found there was no such demand, but that ivory now taken from Africa is being stockpiled while shipping costs are at rock bottom prices in the worldwide slowdown.

Jun. 08 2014 09:19 AM
ceanf from hoboken

"... no bows were seized or forfeited to the U.S. government."

true. the US government just held them, upon a ransom of $525...

Jun. 05 2014 07:36 PM
James Klosty from Millbrook, NY

I recall no confiscation of Mitsuko Uchida's personal piano which she recently brought with her. I suspect they were , wisely, scared of her.

Jun. 05 2014 05:53 PM
Johor from UK

And here was me thinking that the UK had the most dunder-headed Customs service. Even robot Customs officials could be trained to be more discriminating. Going mindlessly by the :letter of the law" is what makes the law an ass. A very sad story. One can only despair for the USA.

Jun. 05 2014 05:02 PM

Let's be clear. These bows were confiscated because they had something vaguely off-white at the tip that might conceivably have been African elephant ivory. But bows with "ivory" tips may also be made using Asian elephant ivory, mammoth ivory, or another type of bone, and even plastic at the lower end of the price scale. Nobody, not even an expert, much less an untrained Customs drone, can tell by a cursory visual inspection which it is. I am as big a supporter of anti-poaching and animal conservation as anyone else, but these carelessly drawn regulations and this kind of ham-fisted enforcement is going to bring all travel by string players to a grinding halt.

Jun. 04 2014 01:14 PM
Charlie Warwick from Brick. NJ

As I have written before, I have the "opportunity " to fly or cruise to other destinations 2-3 times a year and when I come back to my home, I'm relieved if only one piece of my musical instruments have been destroyed by customs or TSA.
I actually had an argument with a Customs official at JFK who declared that because my instrument "came from Japan" that I couldn't bring it here......Ludacris...

What has happened to our country?......It's leadership and demeanor have become abominable!!!!

Customs and TSA should be run by Israelis and Germans.....'until we can get our "act" together!!

Jun. 04 2014 12:58 PM

I hope the fine goes to protecting wildlife rather than this being another way for money to be made

Jun. 04 2014 11:49 AM
Eileen from New York, NY

Again, it all boils down to one reason above all. "SHOW ME THE MONEY". the US looks like a bunch of baffoons. Now, let's really go after the poachers!!!!

Jun. 04 2014 11:34 AM
Common Knowledge

Meanwhile, you'll see in the background of the photo, HSBC, a criminal organization which paid a 1.9 billion dollar "settlement" to resolve charges it enabled Latin American drug cartels to launder more than $670 billion in wire transfers and more than $9.4 billion in purchases of U.S. currency. By the way, nobody from HSBC was ever prosecuted.

Jun. 04 2014 11:09 AM
Bo from Long Island, NY

This is ridiculous - a government out of control!

Jun. 04 2014 09:41 AM

I have a CITES passport for my music equipment all centuries old. the forms are currently so poorly organized with several pages of explanations similar to tax code forms, that phone calls to clarify are absolutely necessary. with the agency swamped with requests, cumbersome process is an understatement. the US passport requires signatures from agents as you depart the US, enter any other country, as you depart any other country, and reenter the US. on one trip for a typical musician, the 3 page passport might be full before you return home. i hope many parts of the process are changed quickly, and that a passport only for musicians, identical throughout the world, can be adopted so everyone can quickly pass through customs, on their way to work.

Jun. 04 2014 06:54 AM
David Segal

Yes, I want to see what will happen when a well known American orchestra like the NY Phil, the BSO, the LA Phil or others will fly abroad...

Jun. 03 2014 09:21 PM

Do these officials know how ridiculous they look by confiscating violin bows with a tiny bit of ivory, obviously produced before the ban on ivory... naturally, violin players in prestigious orchestras use old and rare violins and bows... why make them go through needless paperwork... these are NOT the people you should be going after!!!

Jun. 03 2014 08:53 PM
Lindsay Groves from US

I sympathize with the effort to stop the ivory trade, but any government with the least sense of value would make it very easy to obtain these permits. I haven't tried it yet, but I would bet that it is a cumbersome, time-consuming, expensive, ignorantly conceived process, with no accountability for bureaucratic incompetence and gratuitous nastiness, that makes classical musicians unable to do what they need to do. Am I wrong?

Jun. 03 2014 07:43 PM
James Pedersen

Here is the website for the USFWS that shows the page musicians need to apply for a certificate.


Jun. 03 2014 03:58 PM

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