A Sonoma County-based supplier of guitar-making parts<NO1><NO> is ensnared in an international smuggling investigation after federal authorities seized 24 pallets of exotic wood that it had imported from India.
The case involves world famous Gibson Guitar and is rattling the North Coast's tight-knit artisan guitar trade, with many guitar makers, whose instruments can sell for as much as $30,000, now unsure whether their own supplies include illegal woods.
"This is very, very serious for people who make their living doing this, we're actually quite terrified," said Tom Ribbecke, a veteran Healdsburg luthier — the term for makers of stringed instruments.
The federal actions, including a raid on Gibson warehouses and offices, have cause a political fight on the national level and spotlighted arcane international and domestic trade laws.
<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>Windsor-based Luthiers Mercantile International, or LMI, imported the $200,000-worth of Indian rosewood and ebony to sell to Gibson, which uses it for fingerboards, which overlay guitar necks.<NO1><NO>
On Aug. 24, federal agents descended on a Nashville, Tenn., warehouse where LMI's wood was waiting for Gibson to take possession. They seized the wood along with Gibson computer hard drives and guitars.
The wood was "unlawfully imported, purchased and received," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent John Rayfield in an affidavit filed in support of the raid.
LMI officials say minor paperwork mistakes by their import broker on a separate wood shipment led to the raid.
"It's a legal export, it's a legal import," said Natalie Swango, the company's general manager.
Though LMI has imported rosewood from India for decades, the U.S. government is now saying "that Indian rosewood fingerboards are an illegal export, period," she said.
LMI has been subpoenaed for its records, Swango said.
Many of Sonoma County's estimated 100 luthiers, who<NO1><NO> depend on tropical exotic hardwoods that have particular resonant qualities, say their futures are at stake in how the case develops.
<NO1><NO>"It's a scary time for us all because there's a lot of misinformation and it's very hard to get an accurate perspective on whether the government is going to focus on smaller makers or not," said Stuart Day, a Healdsburg luthier.
<NO1><NO>Ribbecke, whose guitars are displayed in the Smithsonian Museum, calls his store of wood, purchased over decades, "my 401(k)." He fears that if authorities decide some of it is illegal, they will take it.
"The Lacey Act (the U.S. law under which LMI's wood was seized) also makes all of our material that all of us have been saving and setting aside for our retirement illegal for us to own," he said.
His worries are <NO1><NO>deepened because trade laws underlying the government's allegations make the case more complicated than simply whether, in this particular shipment, LMI either made a mistake or did wrong.
Since 2008, the Lacey Act has made it illegal to bring wood into the United States that was exported illegally from a country of origin. The factors that make an export illegal have to do with wood species, foresting practices and the wood's dimensions and degree of finish.
But under World Trade Organization laws — known <NO1><NO>as the "Harmonized Schedule" — what is legal in one country can appear illegal in another, based on differences in national tariff codes.
The Justice Department and Fish and Wildlife Service would not comment for this article, but their actions have spurred fears that the landscape for importing wood for guitars is changing with neither explanation nor warning.