|Federal Agents show no mercy to law breakers|
Agents from the Justice Department swooped in on Gibson Guitar this Wednesday, raiding factories and offices in Memphis and Nashville, seizing several pallets of wood, electronic files and guitars.
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 Various Forms."
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.
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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.
If you cross an international border with an instrument made of that now-restricted wood, then 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.
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."
There may not be any question that an instrument is old enough to have grandfathered ivory keys. But you don't have the paperwork straight, then two-dozen federal agents will come calling.
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.