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Is it illegal to sell a piano with ivory keys?

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Published: 25 May 2022
Noah Markson

In 2017, the British Government announced their plans to ban the import, export and dealing of items containing elephant ivory in the UK. The ban is due to come into effect in early 2022 after being pushed back to fix technical details, but many musicians have been left wondering how this will affect pianos.

Although the UK now aims to be “front and centre of global efforts to end the insidious trade in ivory”, there are exceptions to the ban.

After tireless lobbying from musicians’ unions, musical instruments made before 1975, such as pianos, will now be exempt from this ban. Many historical instruments, mainly pianos, use ivory as part of their pianos keys, but thankfully, it is estimated that less than twenty per cent of instruments crafted before 1975 contain ivory. As such, the UK government have made an exception as they believe the continued buying and selling of ivory keyed pianos will not contribute to further poaching.

Are pianos with ivory keys valuable?

The rarity of ivory key pianos would lead you to believe that they are inherently valuable, but this is not always the case. The illegality of the ivory itself can often cause issues when looking to sell a piano with ivory keys, and ultimately its value will be determined by the make, model and current condition.

It is also important to note that only the keytops are made of ivory when referring to the ivory seen on the whites of piano keys. The rarity and cost of ivory meant that most piano keys are primarily made from wood and then covered in a very thin layer. Even if you were relying on ivory to increase the price of a piano, there is not much raw material available, to begin with.

How can you tell if a piano has ivory keys?

The majority of modern-day pianos will use plastic or resin to create their piano keys, with resin being preferred for its resistance to yellowing and being more hardwearing. If, however, you own an older piano that you suspect may have ivory keys, there are ways you can tell. One of the easiest ways is to grab a magnifying glass and carefully search for veining on the surface of the keys. Ivory keys will generally have a fine line between the keytop and the stem as they are produced in three parts; the key, the stem and the front, which are carefully joined together.

The other clear indicator of the ivory is the colour of the keys, which will often be very yellow and usually allows you to roughly tell the age of the piano by how dark they are. Some ivory keys will be a dark brown, whereas some will be more of a light yellowish shade.

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Why was ivory used on old piano keys?

Ivory from elephant tusks was initially used for the white piano keys for its hardwearing and durable nature. It quickly became a symbol of wealth for not only its value but its aesthetic beauty when compared to the traditional wooden keys at the time. Ivory made instruments more elegant, and for pianists, it was noted for its ability to absorb perspiration from the fingers. This quality-made it much easier for pianists to play as there was a reduced chance of their fingers slipping.

However, the majority of western piano manufacturers discontinued their use of ivory on piano keys in the early 1970s as the ethical implications came to light. It wasn’t until 1989 that the remaining manufacturers in Asia and parts of Europe stopped using ivory after it was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Can you sell old ivory piano keys?

In short, no, you cannot legally sell old ivory piano keys; they would have to be sold with the original pre-1975 instrument they are taken from. Often, ivory keys are offered to piano technicians who can hold onto them until they are required as part of historic restoration. As with many naturally occurring materials, no two pieces of ivory will look the same, which can make historically accurate restorations difficult. However, technicians will try their best to accurately colour match the keys and the more extensive their selection of ivory keys, the better chance they will have of matching.

Should I avoid antique pianos?

If you ask any pianists, the answer would be not to completely write off antique pianos! There is a distinct beauty in older pianos, and the presence of ivory should not dissuade you of such. If you do own a piano that was built before the 1950s, the likelihood is that it will have ivory keys. And, whilst they look great, the keys do require a certain level of care and maintenance, and if you were looking to have it restored, you might struggle.

If you feel uncomfortable owning a piano with ivory keys, you can choose to have your keys replaced with more modern plastic or resin options. Although they may not have the same aesthetic appeal as ivory keys, modern alternatives are just as durable and arguably have a better touch and responsiveness.

If you are interested in purchasing an antique piano with ivory keys, or you believe you have a piano with ivory keys that you may wish to sell, why not get in touch with our team at Markson Pianos today? We are a third-generation family business and since 1910 have specialised in the sale and hire of countless new and second-hand pianos, including those with original ivory keys. Speak to our team today on 0207 935 8682 or email us at info@marksonpianos.com to see how we can assist you!

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