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Capitol Hill Craftsman Caught Between Art and Law

David Berkowitz is close to politics in more ways than one. Not only is the guitar builder’s sawdust-covered and parts-strewn studio blocks from the Capitol, but his work is also being affected by his neighbors in Washington, D.C.

Under 2008 amendments to the more-than-century-old Lacey Act, some guitar-makers are under threat of prosecution for their use of certain woods from places such as Madagascar and India.

In August, armed federal law enforcement agents raided a Gibson Guitar factory in Tennessee in search of rosewood and ebony.

Berkowitz, who began toying with guitar building as a child, said it is “practically impossible” to have wood that was harvested in accordance with all domestic and foreign laws — a requirement under the act — “and any number of regulators off the record will tell you that.”

He has not been visited by investigators, but he knows that he and some of his customers might face confiscation of their guitars.

Berkowitz, who said he sympathizes with the underlying goals of this legislation — to protect rare plant and animal species — notes that one of the main problems with the Lacey Act is that it contains no grandfather clause.

“You have all these guitars that predate Lacey, that were legally manufactured, that are now illegal,” he said, citing a 1985 Fender Stratocaster with an Indian rosewood fingerboard as an example.

Someone traveling abroad with their guitar, for example, might face confiscation if they can’t trace the history of the materials in the instrument — something almost no one who owns a guitar could do.

But Berkowitz, who knows the ins and outs of his instruments, might be able to.

He began to study pre-medicine with the hope of becoming a physician, but a year at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Ariz., convinced him to pursue guitar building instead.

“The most important thing I gained was the confidence that I could actually do it,” he said of the program, adding that being able to “think through the process of building an instrument” was equally important.

Between growing up with a chemical engineer for a father and studying pre-medicine, Berkowitz was well-versed in the scientific method, something guitar-makers can use to ensure consistency in their instruments, he said.

But not Berkowitz.

“I’m just not that organized,” he said, holding a notebook filled with sketches, measurements and notes. “I’m a little more touchy-feely. I listen. I feel.”

Berkowitz said those artistic qualities make him stand apart in this city. “I am an outlier, there’s no question about it,” he said.

Although he has found other artist-craftsmen in the District, such as the nearby cabinetmaker with whom he often shares tools or the colleagues he has when he works as a stagehand at theaters in the area, Berkowitz laments the capital city’s approach to art.

“Washington is odd,” he said. “Washington likes to be photographed next to the arts, but they don’t embrace the arts the way New York [City] embraces the arts.”

He expresses the same sort of ambivalence about the environmental activists who are pushing to protect native species using the Lacey Act.

Stuart L. Pimm, the Doris Duke chair of conservation ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, has called Madagascar “the worst country to be a tree.”

“It’s convenient for the environmental community to talk about Madagascar because it’s a very good example of what’s going wrong,” Berkowitz said. “By the same token, the environmental community is not talking about what is being done right.”

Berkowitz pointed to India as an example. There, he said, the wood is usually harvested and exported with the consent of the Indian government, with the legal proviso that the 10 mm pieces of wood will not undergo further processing. Because the fingerboards are often thinned when added to guitars, something Berkowitz said had not been a problem in the past, the Lacey Act views the wood as not in compliance with Indian law and therefore prohibited.

That means guitar-makers or owners in the United States are expected, in effect, to enforce the laws of another country that the other country doesn’t itself enforce.

“You can’t expect grandma buying her grandkid a guitar to know all the laws of foreign governments in terms of what materials were in something,” he said. “That should be focused on importers and manufacturers.”

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