One of the most common questions we receive is whether ivory piano keys are worth money. Indeed, ivory is illegal to buy and sell in most places today. Since ivory is scarce, it makes sense to think that they have some value if in good condition.
Sadly, this is far from the case.
Understanding “Ivory Keys”
Through the 1940s, the white keys of a piano, also called the naturals, were covered with thin pieces of ivory. First point to understand is that “ivory keys” are not the entire key. Only the very thin covering, called the key-top, was ivory. The ivory covered the top and front of each wooden key, thereby making them white. Therefore, as a source of ivory, when you add up all the thin, brittle key coverings – it is very little raw material.
Second, ivory key-tops were notorious for cracking, chipping, peeling and flaking. They frequently became discolored, with particular keys yellowing very badly. The ivory key-tops eventually needed cleaned and/or professionally bleached. Customers and technicians would both become very frustrated. Experienced piano tuners and technicians (and stores like Graves Piano) end up with drawers full of old ivory key-tops.
In comparison, the plastic key coverings of today are amazing. They’re brilliant snow -white in color, and will look perfect 50 years from now. Used pianos can have these new key tops installed for $400-$500. An incredible upgrade which we recommend.
We’ll give credit where it is due: Many players loved the feel of ivory, its texture and porosity. Ivory also absorbed oil from the fingertips, and felt cool to the touch. But, even if you wanted ivory key tops…
Selling and trading ivory is illegal. And it’s no joke.
Trying to sell thin, small ivory key-tops, while also being a waste of time, is against the law. Ebay, for example, will immediately pull any listing that mentions ivory. You can’t transport ivory overseas, and there are even laws in the United States against carrying ivory over state lines. Point being, don’t do it! And don’t waste your time with those ivory key coverings.
In summary, ivory key tops are a very small source of raw ivory. They are brittle and prone to uneven discoloration. Many tuners, technicians and stores also have an overabundance of ivory key-tops available to them from old used pianos (many times the piano even disposed or given away for free, with the ivories intact). And on top of all this, ivory is illegal to sell or trade.
So what can you do with ivory key-tops?
As we mentioned above, piano tuners, technicians and retailers keep ivory key-tops in stock. They use them to repair a used piano that may come in with missing, cracked, or damaged ivory key tops (used pianos from the 1940s and prior). We keep many ivories because it can be difficult to find a shade and size that matches the rest of the keys on that instrument.