Vintage guitars

Guitars with Brazilian Rosewood: Info Update

I already reported in two previous blog posts (here and here) about the difficult situation we are facing when buying or selling guitars with parts of Brazilian rosewood (e.g. the fingerboard on vintage Fender or Gibson guitars).

Yesterday I was on Germany’s biggest vintage guitar show in Oldenburg. Last year the show was cancelled due to exactly this issue – the problems of displaying guitars with Brazilian rosewood in public. This year Brazilian rosewood played a role again: there was an info booth where you could compare samples of different rosewoods and a workshop on Endangered woods on musical instruments with PD Dr. Gerald Koch from Hamburg University.

Distinguishing Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) from similar rosewoods (e.g. Indian rosewood) is not easy (some info and pictures can be found here). The samples of  these two rosewoods at the info booth looked very similar, even the number of pores was similar on these. I also did the ‘smell test’: Brazilian rosewood is said to have a typical sweet odor, a bit like vanilla or roses. However, I have to admit that – after some sanding of the samples – both had some odor but I found the Braz rosewood neither stronger nor ‘typical’. And another rosewood – Cocobolo – smelled to me much more of vanilla than the Brazilian.

Many vintage Strats with Brazilian rosewood on the Oldenburg Vintage Guitar Show this year - but only with CITES certificate!
Many vintage Strats with Brazilian rosewood on the Oldenburg Vintage Guitar Show this year – but only with CITES certificate!

Here is an overview of some – partly new – aspects discussed in the workshop:

* The overlap between Brazilian and Indian rosewood on vintage Fender guitars is wider than previuosly believed. While almost all Fenders up to 1966 had Brazilian rosewood, it can be found in the late 60ies or even early 70ies as well.

* It is confirmed now that it is possible to gig with instruments with Brazilian rosewood! This was not clear as displaying instruments with this wood commercially is not allowed. To play an old Fender on a gig where you perform for money can be considered commercial, but it was stated that on a gig you mainly present your music and not your instrument. The same should apply for e.g. Youtube videos where you play such a guitar. However, if you want to sell it it is not allowed to present it on Youtube for this purpose without having the proper CITES papers.

* Trading these instruments beetwen the different economic areas (e.g. the US; the EU, Japan,..) is NOT possible, even with CITES certificate!!!
If someone offers e.g. a 1962 Strat on ebay and offers world wide shipping, this is illegal. The instrument can be confiscated when passing the borders!!

* If you want to sell such an instrument WITHIN your economic area, you need the CITES certificate.

* You can get the CITES paper when your guitar was made before 1992 (the year Brazilian rosewood was added to CITEX annex 1) AND you can prove that the guitar was imported to your econmic area before this date. If you e.g. bought the 1962 Strat on Ebay US in 1995 and let it ship to Europe, your guitar was imported illegally and you cannot obtain a CITES certificate for it !

* Hamburg University is a leading place for identifying endangered woods. They sent samples and information – including pictures of the endangered wood and the most similar legal ones it can be mixed up with – to many customs authorities all over the world. So hoping that the customs officers will not recognize endangered woods on a vintage guitar you are to buy is highly risky at least!! As customs are responsible for controlling trade with endangered species, they must be qualified and are thus trained for this.

* Instruments made before 1947 are free to trade in the EU.

* Everyone agreed that the CITES laws were intended to protect species, and not to criminalize guitar players who have owned their vintage guitar for maybe 30 years. But the idea is to control and reduce any demand for these species: if you cannot buy e.g. ivory legally, there is less demand for it and so less elephants are killed.

* CITES is a world-wide law which cannot be modified by local authorities. So if trading such an instrument is not allowed, authorities have to confiscate it and are not allowed to make exceptions.

2 thoughts on “Guitars with Brazilian Rosewood: Info Update

  1. Hi Ingo,

    does that mean it is actually impossible to buy a vintage guitar from outside of europe? And then there are luthiers in the US who still built guitars with brazillian rosewood but with proper paperwork (i.e. proof it was harvested before 1969 – when harvesting was shut down in Brasil) or from old furniture.

    E.g. Tom Bartlett is still doing replicas with brazillian and when I recently asked him if he stil ships to europe he said he frequently does this officially with approval of the customs. He says he needs the proper documentation of the wood but then it would be possible.

    So I assume there’s more to the story…

    1. Yes, it seems it is actually impossible to buy a vintage guitar with Braz rswd from outside Europe (at least legally)! You can sell it within the EU, or within the US, with the CITES paper (that can be obtained when the instrument was built *and imported* before 1992). With such a paper for the piece of wood, it seems to be possible to build a guitar from it, but you can still not export / import it.

      What Tom Bartlett told you must be wrong. Importing with CITES papers is possible for CITEX annex II species (e.g. Honduras mahogany) but not for annex I species!

      If you want to sell a guitar from the US and ship it to Europe, you need an export permission from the US and an import permission from the EU. From what I understood, such a permission might be possible for e.g. a museum or educational /scientific institute like a university, but never for a private person who wants to buy a guitar.

      I agree that in many cases it is possible to import it (= the guitar gets through customs) but this is just good luck, and illegal! You risk the danger of confiscating, I guess the guitar and your money will be gone then.

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