Federal agents swooped in on Gibson Guitar Wednesday, raiding factories
and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood,
electronic files and guitars. The Feds are keeping mum, but in a
statement yesterday Gibson's chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz,
defended his company's manufacturing policies, accusing the Justice
Department of bullying the company. "The wood the government seized
Wednesday is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier," he
said, suggesting the Feds are using the aggressive enforcement of overly
broad laws to make the company cry uncle.
It isn't the first time that agents of the Fish and Wildlife Service
have come knocking at the storied maker of such iconic instruments as
the Les Paul electric guitar, the J-160E acoustic-electric John Lennon
played, and essential jazz-boxes such as Charlie Christian's ES-150. In
2009 the Feds seized several guitars and pallets of wood from a Gibson
factory, and both sides have been wrangling over the goods in a case
with the delightful name "United States of America v. Ebony Wood in
The question in the first raid seemed to be whether Gibson had been
buying illegally harvested hardwoods from protected forests, such as the
Madagascar ebony that makes for such lovely fretboards. And if Gibson
did knowingly import illegally harvested ebony from Madagascar, that
wouldn't be a negligible offense. Peter Lowry, ebony and rosewood expert
at the Missouri Botanical Garden, calls the Madagascar wood trade the
"equivalent of Africa's blood diamonds." But with the new raid, the
government seems to be questioning whether some wood sourced from India
met every regulatory jot and tittle.
It isn't just Gibson that is sweating. Musicians who play vintage
guitars and other instruments made of environmentally protected
materials are worried the authorities may be coming for them next.
If you are the lucky owner of a 1920s Martin guitar, it may well be
made, in part, of Brazilian rosewood. Cross an international border with
an instrument made of that now-restricted wood, and you better have
correct and complete documentation proving the age of the instrument.
Otherwise, you could lose it to a zealous customs agent—not to mention
face fines and prosecution.
John Thomas, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a blues and
ragtime guitarist, says "there's a lot of anxiety, and it's well
justified." Once upon a time, he would have taken one of his vintage
guitars on his travels. Now, "I don't go out of the country with a
The tangled intersection of international laws is enforced through a
thicket of paperwork. Recent revisions to 1900's Lacey Act require that
anyone crossing the U.S. border declare every bit of flora or fauna
being brought into the country. One is under "strict liability" to fill
out the paperwork—and without any mistakes.
It's not enough to know that the body of your old guitar is made of
spruce and maple: What's the bridge made of? If it's ebony, do you have
the paperwork to show when and where that wood was harvested and when
and where it was made into a bridge? Is the nut holding the strings at
the guitar's headstock bone, or could it be ivory? "Even if you have no
knowledge—despite Herculean efforts to obtain it—that some piece of your
guitar, no matter how small, was obtained illegally, you lose your
guitar forever," Prof. Thomas has written. "Oh, and you'll be fined $250
for that false (or missing) information in your Lacey Act Import
Consider the recent experience of Pascal Vieillard, whose Atlanta-area
company, A-440 Pianos, imported several antique Bösendorfers. Mr.
Vieillard asked officials at the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species how to fill out the correct paperwork—which simply
encouraged them to alert U.S. Customs to give his shipment added
There was never any question that the instruments were old enough to
have grandfathered ivory keys. But Mr. Vieillard didn't have his
paperwork straight when two-dozen federal agents came calling.
Facing criminal charges that might have put him in prison for years, Mr.
Vieillard pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating the Lacey
Act, and was handed a $17,500 fine and three years probation.
Given the risks, why don't musicians just settle for the safety of
carbon fiber? Some do—when concert pianist Jeffrey Sharkey moved to
England two decades ago, he had Steinway replace the ivories on his
piano with plastic.
Still, musicians cling to the old materials. Last year, Dick Boak,
director of artist relations for C.F. Martin & Co., complained to Mother
Nature News about the difficulty of getting elite guitarists to switch
to instruments made from sustainable materials. "Surprisingly,
musicians, who represent some of the most savvy, ecologically minded
people around, are resistant to anything about changing the tone of
their guitars," he said.
You could mark that up to hypocrisy—artsy do-gooders only too eager to
tell others what kind of light bulbs they have to buy won't make
sacrifices when it comes to their own passions. Then again, maybe it
isn't hypocrisy to recognize that art makes claims significant enough to
compete with environmentalists' agendas.