Brazilan rosewood and German authorities

Brazilian rosewood is one of the greatest woods for fingerboards. Unfortunately this tropical tree – Dalbergia nigra – is  on the CITES list of endangered species so that strict restriction were put on trading this wood in 1992, the reason why Brazilian rosewood was found on many vintage guitars but hardly on new guitars (which often use Indian rosewood as a substitute).


Carrying such a vintage guitar on a tour requires a lot of different papers – acording to German authorities

 Vintage Guitar Show cancelled

Germany’s biggest vintage guitar show which was planned for the coming weekend (November 3/4) has been cancelled for legal reasons that have to do with this wood. What happened? German authorities (the Bundesamt für Naturschutz) released an anouncement (German language) about Brazilian rosewood last year that explicitely explains how to deal with any items, like guitars, that contain parts of this wood: if you want to travel with such a guitar from e.g. the US into the EU, you need a paper from the US authorities that allows exporting, and another one from German authorities that allows importing it. This is true for new instruments (which makes sense), but also for any instruments that were built before this wood was added to the CITES list (1992). It also requires another special paper (Vermarkungsbescheinigung) to display such an instrument in public on a non-private event.

This means: if you are an amateur musician and own such a guitar, you are not allowed to play it on a local gig in a pub, or to display it on a guitar show, theoretically not even to play it in a youtube video that includes advertizing, unless you have such a paper from the authorities.

This paper however requires a (sometimes expensive) certificate that your guitar was produced before 1992, and that you bought it before this date. If you bought it after 1992, you need papers that prove when and where the guitar was imported into the EU. If you bought it in e.g. 2005 on ebay, you might not got such papers from the seller, who also maybe had bought it from somwhere else without these papers, and you cannot prove legitimacy of the EU import.

This theoretically also applies to touring bands. Mark Knopfler’s Les Pauls, his ’61 Strat, his sunburst Telecaster, some of his Pensas and Pensa Suhrs, and possibly some of his Martins, have fingerboards of Brazilian rosewood. If after the US leg of a tour he continues the tour in the EU, the customs office might insist on an export paper from the US, an import paper from the EU, plus the licence to use it in public, and this for each guitar. If he does not have these papers, they might confiscate the guitar, or finally even destroy the wonderful 1958 Les Paul  “due to public interest”.

This has not happened to any touring artist yet (and hopefully never will), but it has been officially confirmed that this is law (or at least the way German authorities interprete some EU laws), and it is thus a theoretical threat for any musician.

Violin confiscated

The following however has happened, and it shows the way  German authorities can act: A Japanese star violin player carried a violin worth about 7.6 million Euros on a tour. German customs insisted on her paying 19% VAT (about 1.4 million Euros) to get the instrument into the EU, and this although it was clear that she did not want to sell it there but to play it on a classical concert (the violin was not even hers but a loan of some cultural institution). The violin was confiscated. It took an argument between the Japanese and German government to get it back some time later.

It is good to control trading with endangered species, and thus to protect the rain forest, but it is crazy to make playing an instrument illegal which you might have for years and that was built when the wood was legally available everywhere, unless you can provide a bunch of  difficult to get papers.

4 thoughts on “Brazilan rosewood and German authorities

  1. Very interesting, but is there any reason why an amateur cannot simply say to the authorities, “it is Indian Rosewood.” (apart from honesty)
    Would they know enough about guitars to tell the difference ?

    1. Of course no amateur musician who plays a vintage guitar with a Braz fingerboard in a pub has got into any trouble so far (and hopefully never will), but it is confirmed that this is against EU law which requires a paper to display the guitar in public. And noone has such a paper, this is why the vintage show was cancelled.
      I can’t tell how much knowledge a customs officer has, they surely might know that old fender guitars are valuable collector items, and sometimes have parts of endangered woods. The problem is – as I understood it – that it is on your side to prove that it is not Braz rswd or that you got it legally, so if the customs officer sees a dark fingerboard and thinks it might be Braz rswd, he can confiscate the guitar.

  2. This sounds a crazy law to implement.
    I’ve not got any realy old instrumens, but for example, I have no idea where the rosewood fingerboard on my 80’s Ovation came from. I’m going to a jam in Germany in a few weeks. So in theory, it sounds like I need to get all this paperwork sorted out too.
    Just to go play music with some friends… crazy.
    If my guitar gets confiscated on the border, I’ll let you know 🙂

  3. My father flew Mosquitos in WW2 – ironically made of wood – to protect us all from this sort of totalitarianism – the lunatics are running the asylum again !

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