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Just in: German customs return seized Strad to owner

The Dresden concertmaster Yuki Manuela Janke got her violin back last night, she has told the Japan Times. Customs officials told her she should have gone through a different channel. Failure to do so has cost her two weeks of worry and inaction while her precious instrument was held for ransom at Frankfurt Airport with a 1.5 million Euro fine on its bridge.

‘I’m relieved as the instrument has been returned,’ said Ms Yanke, 26. ‘I’d like to concentrate on my performance now with the concert season already under way.’

And quite right too. Her fracas is over. But other musicians, especially those of Asian origin, are advised to avoid Frankfurt airport until the Customs procedures are clarified and the over-diligent officers are pensioned off.

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  1. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    The lesson here is clear: if you have the documents and are carrying an object of great value, even if you are perfectly within your legal rights, you must take the “red” line when leaving customs in any country and declare the object. She was stopped because it appeared that she was trying to deceive them by taking the “green” exit.

    I blame the owner of the violin who has the responsibility to advise artists to whom they loan their instruments. I was once with a student orchestra and one of the kids had a Strad valued at $1.5 million borrowed from a very famous collector. The owner provided us with all the documents and told the student to take the “red” line and voluntarily declare the fiddle and show the documents. He was entering Switzerland and passed with no problem.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      And he was cheeky lil devil who took the instrument from the case and started to play for the customs officers. Everyone smiled and enjoyed the show.

      • Sounds like a wonderful moment. I hope the student in question is doing well now.

        • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

          He is doing well and has a nice career but without that Strad which the owner reclaimed (which is so often the case), although the collector has made a few “lifetime” loans to artists we would all recognize by name. The student had been told by the owner that they might ask him to prove that he could play the instrument. They neglected to ask but he decided to give them an impromtu demo anyway. I have always found the airport in Geneva to be among the more welcoming in Europe but my last passage was a few years ago. Has that changed?

  2. The problem, I would suggest, is not the owner but the German customs who have been acting recently in a rather arbitrary and authoritarian manner. In both cases it seems that musicians were following proceedures which had worked before. It is the duty of customs to assist travellers as much as to stop contraband and this the German customs singularly failed to do. Miss Janke seems to have been stopped not because she was trying to deceive customs but because a customs official decided that she might sell the violin anyway even though all the evidence was that she was a legitimate musician. The Nippon Music Foundation is suggesting the creation of an ‘instrument passport’ which would remove the confusion and this possible solution has merit. Clearly they are just as surprised as the rest of us.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      A passport for valuable objects which must be regularly carried across borders is a wonderful idea. I’m sure that Brussels and the European Union will put this on the list along with the pressing (no pun intended) issues of wine and cheese which they have recently discussed while Frau Merkel received such a warm welcome in Greece yesterday.

      Anyone who has ever passed through German airports, even in transit, knows that “acting in a rather arbitrary and authoritarian manner” is too often the rule rather than the exception. If artists travel into or through these airports, they are now hopefully warned that as the composer Ned Rorem once said: “A German joke is no laughing matter.”

      • Yes, you are of course right in saying “‘acting in a rather arbitrary and authoritarian manner’ is too often the rule rather than the exception” at German borders. But I would like to add that in this respect Germany is rather the rule than the exception among the countries of the western world.

        • Really? the reality is, that there are almost no controls. Now is it really reasonable to blame the custom officials, if rarely they do a check, for acting “arbitrary and in an authoritarian manner”?
          I think that’t just hogwash. There were never times with more freedom for traveling of people and goods between civilized countries than today.
          I’m sorry for Ms. Janke, but ultimately it was her or the violin’s owner’s fault, not the customs officials who once (or twice) were following their rules and laws to the hilt.

      • I must be the odd one out as all my trips through Frankfurt have been smooth with courteous and helpful officials. Still, it would seem that for musicians Amsterdam or Brussels might be the better option. That was rather a bon mot by Rorem though.

        • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

          I have found a big difference in Frankfurt and Munich between Intra-European flights and those going and coming from international, overseas destinations. Intra-euro is like taking a train but the international flights are another kettle of sauerkraut (and I really don’t mind the often heavy-handed security with the magnetometers turned up to their highest setting so that they go off even if you think the word metal). But, I recently took a flight Paris-Berlin and it was hassle-free in every respect (but I left my Strad at home). Passage for those travelers with EU passports is even easier.

          • Yes, of course. All customs and VAT issues are regulated by EU law, so a flight from Paris to Berlin is comparable to one from NY to Chicago. On a EU-domestic flight, a Strad shouldn’t be a problem either – that is why the luggage labels on EU-domestic flights are marked with green bars, so the customs officers can recognize it easily.

            And, by the way, the much blamed Frankfurt customs officers in the Janke case were thus acting according to EU law, not German law.

            To make things a little bit more complicated, customs and immigration do not follow the same geography: The whole EU (currently 27 states) forms a unified customs area, so there are no customs controls between them. However, you have to go through immigration (but not through customs) when travelling form Paris to London, since the UK (and Ireland, Bulgaria and Romania) is not part of the so called Schengen area. However, some non-EU states (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland) are. So, when going from Berlin to Oslo, you have to pass customs but not immigration.

    • Well, apparently Ms. Janke took the green line at customs, which is equivalent to saying “I have nothing to declare”. But of course any item worth several millions, be it an instrument, jewels, a work of art or whatever, is something you have to declare at customs, i.e. showing the item with documentation and telling for what purpose you are carrying it over the border and whether you intend to take it out of the country again later or not etc. Taking the green line while carrying a Stradivari with you is thus nothing else than lying at customs, and no public authority in any civilised country will be very happy when they discover they have been lied at (just try next time at U.S. immigration, for example).

      This has nothing to do with being a “legitimate musician” but with the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, laws do apply for artists as well. If Ms. Janke had taken the red line, shown her instrument with the documentation and declared that she is bringing it into the EU only temporarily as her professional equipment, she would of course have been allowed to leave customs with her instrument and without paying a cent.

      • ‘Lying’ is rather a strong term – she uses the violin for her work and has no doubt gotten the understanding that it is OK to use the green channel from previous experiences. Be that as it may the issue (which you do appear to miss) was that despite her documents and proof of profession German customs decided that she might sell the violin without any evidence to support that suggestion. One can be too stiff necked and it was a stereotype held of the Germans in the past. One feels that this whole business goes some way to confirm it.

        • As I said before: I presume the Nippon Foundation is to blame, they should have told her about the customs issue. But anyway: At every airport and border checkpoint, the green line is clearly marked with “nothing to declare”.

          By the way, you appear to miss that the whole issue has nothing to do with the question whether she had any intention to resell the violin or not. It’s about VAT, and this is due whenever you import goods into the EU, no matter what you intend to do with them – e.g. an EU resident who buys a 20k Rolex outside the EU for his personal use has to pay VAT when reentering the EU.

          • This is I am afraid a red herring that some think relevant. The German customs decided that she might resell against the evidence. That she is a 1st Concertmaster with a German orchestra. That she was returning from a concert in Japan (which I just saw a recording of two nights ago on NHK – Japanese national television) where she had been playing with other high level musicians. That she had all the documentation for the ‘tool of her trade’. That she had documentation which showed that she had leased the violin not bought it and that the violin was purchased and owned outside Germany. Furthermore that if VAT was due it was payable outside the EU not inside. Only if Miss Janke was going to resell the violin would VAT be due. There was no evidence of this and this rather has the nature of a shakedown by German customs. It is nothing to do with the strict enforcement of regulations that seems so beloved of yourself but a lack of simple common sense and thought by some rather limited people . You may want to consider this – the whole Horigome and Janke incidents have caused considerable embarrassment to Germany and heavily damaged the reputation of German customs. It has made them look like a bunch of fools in fact. No one set them up to do this; they did it themselves. It is not her fault or the fault of Nippon Music Foundation. It is the actions of the German customs which have damaged themselves and no amount of attempted justification will change that.

          • As a reply to Sardis (I can’t find a reply-button with his/her comment): Well, I have no personal relation to German customs, but my general impression has always been that they do not care much about their reputation – however, they do care when they find out someone lies when answering the “anything to declare?”-question. And, I rest my case, chosing the green line is an answer to this question.

      • Seriously?!?

  3. This whole situation is deplorable.

  4. So glad to hear she has got the instrument back. My big issue would be: Whatever the rules she is alleged to have broken, why was it necessary to actually seize the instrument itself? As a resident in Germany she could have supplied her personal details, paperwork from the Nippon Foundation, her workplace etc, which would have been quite sufficient for any further investigation and to ensure the Strad wasn’t going to go walkabout any time soon.

  5. Confiscating a musical instrument which is used to promote art in the world and for the humanity, is just plainly MEAN. It is different from confiscating Rolex. It seems these lowly government officers with very boring lives are trying to use their itzy-bitzy little power they have, knowing that they would be probably asked to reverse their decisions later from the top. This isn’t just Germans. Border guards of any country tend to want to show who is the boss. Can you blame them, watching wonderful people going in and out of the country where they have to sit there? Like toll operators with a little bit of power. They harass peaceful musicians, and yet they miss terrorists.

  6. William Safford says:

    There is something stereotypically Teutonic about these two incidents.

    If the issue is that the violinists should have been on a red line instead of a green line, couldn’t a customs official merely have processed them as if they were at a red line? Another approach would have been to redirect them to a red line — slightly less customer-friendly but far superior to the actual outcome.

    One professional musician friend of mine is red-green colorblind. Does this mean that his beloved instrument will be confiscated if his eyes lead him to the incorrect line? Sheesh. I’ll warn him about Frankfurt.

  7. Nandor Szederkenyi says:

    I would have a small thought especially for those who still believe that the German customs were acting absolutely right.
    These days, basically everyone uses computers. Especially business people, who are traveling much, are carrying computers with them always. Now, I would say, a computer is definitely more than 430.- euros. But I think, no one would ever go through the red channel at the airport to declare it.
    If this is a computer, or a violin, doesn’t make a tiny bit difference because both are used for work and both are more than 430.- euros
    If we are strict then let’s be but then really!

    • I have declared my laptop in Western countries, including Germany. This is the result of some issues with it in Russia when I did not. I realize to do so is very unusual, but I’ve developed a deep sense of paranoia over it.

  8. It is hugely embarrassing to see what grief some over-dilignet custom officers are causing on this issue. This is not a matter of “taking the wrong line” (ie Green or Red) at the airport. It is more a matter how to handle an obvious error by the artist entering that wrong line without the slightest intention of doing anything wrong or illegal.

    German custom officers do not seem to differentiate between drugs, weapons, protected animals or an precious violin, being part of the working equipment of an artist, the same way as a laptop is the equipment for a businessman.

    The the finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has to intervene personally to rectify this shows to what extend this issue has been blown totally out of proportion. It is about time clear rules are being given to custom officials how to deal with such issues more cordially and respectfully. That some of those custom-jerks now are trying to sue Schäuble for custom-fraud just tells you that those guys should be kicked out of their jobs swiftly. Maybe they are of use checking waste-bins at the airport for explosives etc. Their diligence would at least be of some use here.

    • A $ 4 Million antique violin is what it is. In the eyes of a custom official it is a valuable commodity, just like in the eyes of investors who buy these violins. Not to make music with it but to insure their wealth with it against the risks of paper currencies and other investments.
      A custom official can not guess what the intention of an individual in front of him is. Common sense also does not help. A $ 4 million violin is no different than $ 4 million in physical gold from a customs POV.
      Any profession needs to declare its tools – if they exceed a minor value – when passing through customs. Why should musicians be exempt?

      • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

        Ay, there’s the rub…court cases have been argued in the USA on this very issue. For the musician, it was decided, an instrument (it was actually a bow in one case) is a tool for which he/she can take the appropriate tax deductions for depreciation, etc. But, in the market place, instruments of high value and significant age must be considered as works of art which never depreciate according to US Tax laws. A $10 million del Gesu (The Kochanski/Rosand sold in 2009) was a tool for Aaron Rosand but a fine art object for the Russian collector who bought it according to US laws. (The transaction took place in London).

        FYI: The above link discusses a US Tax Court decision in 1995 which declared that although a double bass by an 18th century maker is a work of fine art not usually eligible for depreciation according to existing tax laws, since it became a tool for a professional musician, he had the right to claim depreciation and take an annual tax deduction for it. This was a landmark case for professional musicians in the USA. Please enjoy.

        • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

          PS: Brian Liddle, a bass player, who won this case originally and in appeals court is currently a member of the now dormant Minnesota Orchestra.

          Here is a link to the NYTimes article on the Kochanski/Rosand sale in 2009 which was widely reported around the world.

          PPS: I completely agree that Customs Officers are not equipped to make decisions about which even lawyers and courts are scratching their heads.

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