JFK Airport Customs Officials Seize Budapest Orchestra's Violin Bows

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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.