Piano Importation

Updated Nov. 11, 2016

FWS has officially relaxed the rules such that you are able to bring in a piano with proper CITEs documentation. I have now successfully completed the process of doing this. My observations are below:


It goes without saying that an easy way to acquire a square piano is to buy one from where they have a lot of them! In the USA, that may mean buying one from a private seller or at auction in the UK, or nearby in Europe. The Friends of Square Pianos website often lists pianos for sale or at auction, and I have acquired two squares myself through our network of friends there.

ANY further information on this page is for reference only, and does NOT constitute legal advice, or expert advice on importation or shipping. Do not use this information for anything more than perhaps an informed opinion on what you must do to import an antique piano. It does NOT apply to more modern pianos in any case, and the importation of ivory is a matter over which this administrator has no control or influence.

If you find a square piano in the same country you live in, there is usually no problem except for shipping. That said, several states have a partial or total ban on buying and selling ivory. Comply with the law in your state or the purchase/destination states. In the USA at least, it costs the same to move a 100 pound square piano as a model B Steinway grand if you use a piano moving company. Furniture movers are generally not interested the moment you say the word piano, even if you explain the details, so be prepared. There are movers in the USA that will do the job for under $1000 coast to coast though, so shop around. Similar deals are apparently available in the UK, I am told. I have recently had good experience with UShip in the US, an Internet based company that connects movers to clients. This may be a good possibility for you as well, but do your homework and and check references.

The problem comes with international sales. Your potential piano probably has ivory on the keyboard, and that makes it interesting to governments. Under the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) elephant and most other ivory is strictly regulated, except for extinct mammoth ivory. This does NOT mean you cannot import pianos, but it does mean you must follow certain rules to move this ivory, which will bear a cost. Before I go into details, let me stop here and state again that you MUST follow the rules, no exceptions. My experience is that inspectors are LOOKING for the word piano or ivory among the bills of lading, your piano WILL be inspected and the CITES certificate must be right there or the shipping will stop. Pianos made before 1947, or more than 100 years old can apply for pre-convention ban permits. If replacement ivory has been put on, and the inspector questions the ivory, you must be able to prove it was added before 1947.

Strictly speaking, if someone takes old ivory and reworks it (cuts it to length for instance) and puts it on the piano, it has instantly lost all pre-convention ban status and CANNOT be imported under any circumstances! Make sure your old piano has the original ivory and some form of expert testament as to the age of the piano and ivory.

Pianos bearing ivory keys arriving without a certificate are confiscated or impounded. If confiscated, your piano may be lost to you permanently. If the officer is understanding and you are only impounded, as remediation you can go to where it is located, strip the ivory and leave it with the Fish and Wildlife officer, and apply for a re-inspection, at cost. Or, you may be allowed to pay to leave it impounded while you apply for a CITES certificate in the USA, a 30 to 90 day activity, during which you will be charged a daily rate while the piano sits in custody, which is generally not cheap. So DEFINITELY apply for and obtain this permission ahead of time!

You have bid, won, and paid for your new piano, and now need to get it to your home country. I invite others to send in comments on importing into their home country, which will be posted here. For coming from the UK to the USA, the procedure is something like this:

You need a mover to collect it from the auction house. G&R Removers are frequently at the larger auctions and will go to the smaller ones as needed. In terms of cost, I find them competitive for the value added (as of 2016) to other removers. You must make your own choice, but they answer emails quickly and are generally on top of the business. Lance Green or Myrtle Smart is a good contact person there. They can handle the shipping from door to door, though you should expect some interface with the shipper chosen for the USA portion of the trip, and their recent quotes have been for UK to port only due to problems with shipping cost in the US.

The remover will usually crate it and prepare it for shipping. This is important, your piano must either be crated or you must have an entire container load of them that you own. Loose individual pianos don’t ship, nor do you want them to! Now is the time to apply for CITES permissions. G&R can do this for instance, and obtain one in a reasonable time of a month or less. In the USA this can be a longer process depending on the bustle of activity, so expect delays if you apply from the USA. You only need one CITES to be issued per piano, so having the UK people do it can make good sense.

This is an example CITES for an instrument that came in. The animal in question is the appendix 1 listed African Elephant, LOXODONTA AFRICANA. The country of origin is unknown, and the material collected pre-convention ban, in this case on or before 1778. You are both the exporter and importer. The ORIGINAL document must be in the hand of the Fish and Wildlife officer when they inspect your piano, where they will open the crate and wrappings and carefully inspect the instrument. If the document is mailed to you first, then you are responsible for mailing it to the officer who will inspect things. It may work if it is inside the crate but in CLEAR view on the instrument, but is CANNOT get lost without real problems occurring. Only the original document with stamp is admissible.

CITES document

Early pianos before about 1800, not made by Broadwood (who always used brass underdampers so no springs there) often have whale baleen springs on the rear dampers as well. Baleen whales are also appendix 1 listed animals, and a separate CITES is required for this material, with a clear explanation of where the material is, how much is there, and the species, Eubalaena australis, the Southern Right Whale. Over-damper type pianos usually have some of the baleen left. Later models with the Southwell ‘dolly’ dampers, and all Broadwood squares, are safe, but you may be required to show evidence that no baleen is present. Currently the mahogany is only regulated when raw, as in logs and boards, and can pass into the USA as finished pieces. This may change though, so stay tuned.

To come into the USA you also have to complete and mail in form 3-177 as below. This is ~$93 for entry into an approved port (critical that you choose the correct port of entry!) A new e-docs procedure allows you to fill this out and submit it online, and I encourage it.

3-177 form

You must choose a port of entry. Not all ports into the US will work for importing items covered under CITES. On the East coast of the US, Baltimore is the designated port of entry for instance. The FWS staff in Baltimore will work with you, so call then first before starting the shipping, when it happens, and after things arrive.

You will need a customs broker to bring it into the USA, and a shipper to officially receive it, then get it to you. It is possible to pick it up from the dock warehouse, but finding the location can become a challenge. Often the domestic shipper can act as your customs broker, but in any case you will be required to sign a power of attorney over to whoever acts as the broker on your behalf.

It is nearly as easy to import a half dozen pianos as to bring in one, and per piano it is usually much cheaper. I know of several restorers in the business who do this regularly. But this is IMPORTANT: Fish and Wildlife can choose to do an “Intense” inspection (actually open the boxes and lay eyes on the affected ivory) . That means YOU must pay to have the piano(s) trucked to a warehouse, YOU must pay for the time in the warehouse (and this is rather expensive space it seems) and then YOU must pay to have it returned to the shipper. You also get to pay for any missed pick up or deliveries, fuel surcharges, and Tony Soprano’s brother-in-law’s new paint job! All along you are acquiring charges. Getting pianos from England ain’t cheap ladies and gents, and it sure is not getting cheaper. So stop right here and think; “wouldn’t I rather have a nice American square in need of a good home?” They abound in great numbers.

How much will it all cost? Much depends on who you choose and how well prepared you are to navigate the business of getting it here. To bring in a recent 2 piano set in 2016 was ~$3.3K after all was done. Caution, these prices are subject to inflation!

All told, you can easily find yourself spending something in excess of $2500 just to ship a square piano from the UK to the USA. Factor that in when considering a purchase. And if someone quotes a much lower number look closely at what is included. My experience is that there are few shortcuts for this.

So, not exactly a walk in the park to acquire an early piano internationally. As an aside, should you find your piano either missing all, or with miserably preserved ivory with little restoration value, and you can ship it without the ivory or baleen, the CITES is not required. But someone in the UK would have to completely remove the ivory if it is not already gone, so another $200 job or so if you can find the guy to do it.

All this said, this is a doable thing. Once the certifications are complete, there is every reason to believe that your piano will arrive as planned. Go to your Family Practioner or similar and get a prescription for stress pills, then take two before doing anything else.

These rules apply to any piano moved for any reason. If you send a piano to a UK restorer, it will need CITES going both ways for instance.

CITES UK information page

CITES USA information page

One Response to Piano Importation

  1. andrew Nolan says:

    I am interested in early Viennese and German instruments, which have bone key covers. This makes importation much easier.

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