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Another Japanese violinist is stopped at Frankfurt Airport

For the third time, customs at Frankfurt Airport have stopped a passenger of Japanese extraction who was carrying a violin and confiscated the instrument.

The person concerned – we are not at liberty to disclose an identity – was held for two hours yesterday while customs officials demanded proof of purchase and valuation of the violin, worth (we are told) in the low six figures. Fortunately, a relative on the other side of the world was able to fax over full documentation and the unfortunate violinist was given back the instrument and allowed to catch a later connecting flight.

In previous instances, valuable instruments have been seized from a Japanese soloist in transit for Brussels and from a German-born, half-Japanese violinist (below) who is concertmaster in Dresden.


It seems fairly obvious that customs at Frankfurt Airport are engaged in racial profiling – or that there is, at the very least, a rogue Customs official with ethnicity issues. That being the case, musicians should avoid Frankfurt Airport until the authorities stop this pernicious practice.

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  1. Maybe, the ghost of Machold is foremost in the mind of the authorities, after all. (Theft of valuable instruments and sales of big ticket items that are designed to avoid scrutiny and tax are not something to be sneezed at.)

    • Spencer Topel says:

      Good point Ed. Machold’s devastating impact on the violin world produced a situation of mistrust, duplicate certificates, and nothing short of a bureaucratic disaster. I had a similar suspicion when I read this, considering many of Machold’s clients were either from Asia or Asian-European/American.

      Nevertheless, this behavior is the wrong way about the problem if it is somehow related. It is despicable to imagine that if you do not look German, you will be stopped with an instrument and harassed. If this continues, Germany will be a blacklisted destination for string players. I’m definitely not travelling there with a good violin.

      • Perhaps it is primarily not a question of “not looking German”, but not having the appearance of being a EU citizen. I would be more interested to learn whether the person involved in this new incident had followed the widely published (also in this blog) custom rules about travelling with valuable musical instruments, before I’m confronted with quick and predictable accusations of notorious racism by German officials.

      • I nearly left a Sartory with Machold a number of years ago when he had a shop near Lincoln Center, and I am ever thankful I never did. I ended up selling it to a good musician for a modest price which was the better way, anyhow. (What Dick the Butcher in Henry VI, Pt. 2(?) said about lawyers, one might have said about Machold and many of his colleagues………and brokers, lobbyists and politicians)

  2. Abigail Clifford says:

    The majority of violins being carried out in and out of Germany by Chinese and Japanese carriers are not being played upon, they are being traded. Therefore the instruments are a commodity just like any other high valuable tradeable object that are subject to rules.

    It seems that the ” innocent” victims of the German authorities have one thing in common- absolute stupidity. They should simply have the right papers with them. A bit more time learning about the real world rather than practising Paganini might help.
    Germany invaded Poland in 1939 et al. but let’s not blame them every time it rains.

    • Hold your prejudices and generalisations. This is an isolated set of occurrences at Frankfurt Airport, nowhere else. It needs to be looked into.

      • Do I understand it correctly that these occurrences only happen in Frankfurt or another German airport or does these occurrences are only worth to report, when happen in Germany?
        As I know: the Japanese custom is absolutely strict not only with instruments but even with foreign passengers landing in Japan. One item needs to be clarified. When traveling to Japan you can get the detailed information about their rules in advance and these rules are similar to the US.
        If you want, you can get these information when traveling to the EU and to Japan in advance too and it’s better to do this when traveling with expensive instruments. In our orchestrak, we have musicians from 18 different countries and they don’t have trouble because they lnow how to avoid it.
        The mentioned persons in the past learned this the hard way. Travel preparations to foreign countries are not complete after purchasing the tickets.
        Here the specific explanation in German:
        Here in English:
        Hope I could help

        • It is a Frankfurt problem, as specified.

          • It is not a “Frankfurt problem”; Germany, with the largest cohort of professional classical musicians in Europe is simply the home of the largest market in quality instruments in Europe. With an increasing share of both newly manufactured instruments and the trade in existing instruments domiciled in East Asian countries, it is simply no surprise that a great deal of that trade will cross through the busiest airport in German at Frankfurt. Also, as the trade in both high quality new instruments and valuable old instruments unfortunately attracts a large number of persons willing to attempt to get around issues of provenance as well as sales tax and import duties or restrictions by any means possible, and therefor it should be absolutely no surprise that customs agents in Frankfurt are vigilant about this issue.

            A claim of racial profiling by customs agents is a very serious one, and should only be made with sufficient evidence. The high profile cases mentioned in your blog could all reasonably be accounted for on the basis of a passenger coming from an East Asian country combined with carrying a valuable instrument, without papers, through the “nothing to declare” line. Such a passenger could be identified completely without regard to physical appearance,

            Now, an argument could be made that musical instruments ought to be free of sales taxes and import duties, and if you want to make that argument, please do so. But let me also point out that customs control over the export or import of valuable musical instruments may sometimes be the only control available for recovering stolen instruments. Before you slam the system, please consider the alternatives.

      • Warren Shapiro says:

        I appreciate your call for a balanced approach to this. But I do find it odd and disturbing that this is happening at a German airport and not in other European countries. After all, like it or not, Germany has the “rich” history of prejudice. This would seem at the very least reckless and ill advised. At worst, racial profiling, harassment and nonsensical behavior. Isn’t traveling unpleasant enough? If there is a real problem with violin smuggling at Frankfurt Airport, in particular, I just don’t think this is the best way to address it.

        • @ Warren – Eh? If there were a problem with violin smuggling at Frankfurt airport (and no-one is suggesting there is); then surely inspecting and qualifying the instruments arriving and departing is the best way to deal with it. Or what other way would you suggest?

          • Warren Shapiro says:

            It’s an appeal to common sense. For instance, Mr. Ehnes is a famous violinist. What is the likelihood that he is traveling with a stolen violin? How many Strads and Guarneris are there? 600 a thousand? In any case, that’s not an unlimited database even if it’s double or triple that number. Most of the known collector level instruments have public domain information available regarding their ownership. How many world class violinists are there? 1000 maybe 2000? I don’t think it’s profiling to say that a famous violinist with an expensive violin is not likely to be a smuggler. Common sense + Google. It’s no mystery. I presume the Germans are as computer literate as my 13 year old. Someone who is playing a concert with a nationally known orchestra can be Googled. Pretty easy to do. No 2 hour detentions necessary. Common sense. In a world where no one is anonymous why are the Germans acting as if we know nothing about anyone and Jason Bourne might be on the loose with a stolen Strad? Much ado about nothing. I am sorry but we have computers and the internet. You can pull up someone’s social security number in an instant with the right database, it’s just not that big a deal to verify who someone is and where they are going. Based on those two things I hardly think someone who has spent 10,000+ hours practicing plus years at a conservatory is a violin smuggler.

            Lastly, it took me all of 9 seconds to see a picture of Mr. Ehnnes and confirm that he plays the “Marsick” Stradivarius of 1715. No documentation required.

      • But is it? Just because we only know of these three cases at frankfurt doesn’t mean that there aren’t other cases at Frankfurt, nor that there aren’t other cases at other airports. Or is there some other data on this around that isn’t being shared? What information (rather than conjecture) is there to suggest this is a localised issue with Frankfurt?

      • I do agree with you, Norman.

    • That is an ignorant comment. No one I’ve known or met who is a professional violinist carries around documentation on their instruments, and I am a professional violinist have never had to carry such. All these incidents involve harassing young musicians. When the day comes when folks have to travel and carry receipts for every item in their suitcase, its good to know that worldly people like you will be prepared.

      • I can say every professional violinist agrees with Bruno.
        Those superior violinists travel all over the world with their instruments since their childhood.
        They devote most of their lifetime to music, otherwise it’s simply impossible to become one like them.

        …it hurts my heart so much to hear about such people can be harassed easily and no one can protect them beforehand.

    • Hektaphoros says:

      Concerning this particular case, I think it ist not comparable with the other two.
      Anyhow the carrier of a item or valuta over a certain value has to be declared
      and prooved, hasn’t it. It is just a tool proper means to smuggle.
      Carrying a picture of same value anybody would ask? But for music is an
      international business, so a solution should be found.
      Not taking any papers with on in.ternational travels is just silly and not the same as the custom s actions before.
      The Zurich and Frankfurt customs obviously have been overdoing up to sewing German
      secretary of finances by Frankfurt custom officers. Ridiculous….

  3. James Creitz says:

    Hold on here. Plenty of non-Asian performers are being pulled over by customs at German airports (not only Frankfurt) – I speak from experience. As well, there are hundreds of Asian performers passing through German airports each year, so if 3 are stopped, this does not yet reek of racial profiling to me.
    However, I would second the above comment. If you are traveling with a valuable instrument, you should also have suitable documentation with you, ALWAYS and in every country.

  4. James Ehnes says:

    Hello all,
    Mainly through this website (thank you, Norman!), I had become aware over the last few months of the “crackdown” on musical instruments entering the EU, specifically Frankfurt. I had to fly into Frankfurt last week for performances in Hanover, and was quite nervous about whether or not I would be permitted to enter without paying some enormous deposit on my instrument, or obtaining a carnet. I put together a package with various documents: copies of my contract for the performances, copies of my outbound flight confirmation, and, most importantly, a letter from a reputable (i.e.. NOT Machold) dealer, confirming my status as a performer who needs these instruments for the pursuit of my career, listing and describing the violin and four bows in my case, stating that they all belong to me, and giving their current appraised values.
    Upon arrival in Frankfurt, I went to the red lane, as required. I presented my documents and stated my case to the customs official, who was courteous, knowledgeable about the situation (and the notable recent cases of seizure), and THANKED ME for “doing things properly”. He acknowledged that according to the absolute letter of the law it would seem that carnets or payments of large refundable deposits should be necessary for bringing expensive professional equipment into the EU, but that he and his fellow officers were aware of the impracticability of this in the case of musical instruments, and said that the way I documented the violin and bows was perfectly acceptable. He stamped and signed with his personal ID number my document describing the violin and bows, and told me to hold on to it in case anyone inquired about the import status during my time in the EU.
    It was an entirely professional and painless interaction. Of course, it is entirely possible that I may have just gotten lucky. It would be wonderful if the EU were to issue some sort of communique stating specifically that documents like the ones I provided would be sufficient in the future for temporary entry of musical instruments for performing purposes. I’m not confident that will happen anytime soon!
    As far as the issue of racial profiling goes, I’m not Asian, so maybe I’m not in a position to comment on that. And as a temporary visitor to the EU, my case was very different from those of Yuki Manuele Janke and Yuzuko Horigome, who (as I understand it) are residents of the EU, and were dealing with questions of whether proper import procedures were followed. But I do want to point out, as others have, that these types of cases have not been restricted to persons of Asian heritage, nor to Frankfurt airport. I have two “white”, European friends who have encountered virtually identical problems in Amsterdam in recent years, and, of course, there was the well publicized case with Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s violin being seized entering Switzerland.
    A comment regarding ATA/Carnets: some readers have wondered why performers in my situation (traveling abroad to perform) don’t simply obtain carnets in order to avoid this situation entirely. The simple answer is because of the prohibitive cost. Obtaining a carnet requires a deposit of 40% of the goods’ value. Consider some of the recent sale prices of high-end string instruments! One could purchase a bond for approximately 1% of the bond’s value, but even that ends up being an outrageous amount of money in the case of a Strad or Guarneri – likely more than the fee for the performances for which one is traveling abroad in the first place!

    • Dear James
      Many thanks for this helpful and detailed account, which reads like a best-practice guide to taking an instrument to Europe.
      best wishes

      • Glad to hear from James, that by showing all the associated papers of the violin it was actually not a problem to enter Europe. When I travelled to Korea and Russia I did exactly the same and had no problem at all. I got a customs stamp on my copies of insurance, prove of ownership and certificate with photos, and that was it ( in Russia it took them almost 2 hours, in Korea 5 minutes ) Obtaining a carnet is due to the enormous cost out of the question!! The written above is indeed a best -practice guide every musician should know about.

    • Mr Ehnes- great comment, and extremely helpful information.

  5. Abigail Clifford says:

    Good to have the reality check from the fabulous James Ehnes- we all love your playing!

  6. Bruce Carlson says:

    I live in Italy and as a violinmaker have started to issue a document to some of my clients who travel a lot. Leaving Italy, and leaving the EU has not been as much of a problem as getting back in. On the other hand, entry into a foreign country outside the EU might have restrictions unknown to the musician.

    The document is very simple and usually contains the following.

    - Full name, address and contact information of the owner.
    - Specify if the instrument is not owned by the player but on loan and from whom with contact information. Ideally a document from the Foundation or loaner as demonstration of posession.
    - Brief description of the instrument with attached photographs for positive identification.
    - Insured value, insurance company and relative contact information.
    - Photostatic copies of certificates of authenticity, especially if the current owner is mentioned.
    - Any other verifiable document for proof of ownership.

    In addition, musicians are advised to carry with them copies of any letters inviting them to perform in concerts while within the country. It is also advisable, if possible, especially in Russia, that they enter and leave through the same airport . More than one copy can be made and a duplicate copy can be left in deposit at the customs office upon entry. Documents can be stamped for demonstration of entry and exit.

    Travelling without any documents whatsoever in this day and age can only mean potential delays and huge frustration; not to mention a missed concert.

    • James Creitz says:

      Hi Bruce,
      and thanks for your useful information!
      Anybody leaving Germany with an instrument and intending to return with it can take a copy of their certificate to customs when leaving, fill out a form and get a stamp. You will have no problem getting your instrument back into Germany. In my experience, other EU countries also honor that document. Hope this is of help to anybody traveling from and to Germany.
      All Best,

  7. Jaakko Kuusisto says:

    The instructions provided by the German authorities are not realistic, as they call for among other things musicians to obtain ATA carnets for their instruments. Such documentation is not at all available (at least not in Finland) to individuals. Only corporations and such can apply for them, and even if they were available, they should then be renewed for each trip outside the EU. Clearly this is not the solution.

    On the other hand, no customs official has ever, during 20 years, paid any attention to my instrument, anywhere. The real problem here is that there seem to exist multiple policies on this issue inside the EU, which should not be possible. All known cases recently involve the Frankfurt Airport and Japanese musicians. I think some investigating might be called for.

  8. James Creitz says:

    There are 3 issues being brought up here.
    1) Frankfurt. As the revered Mr. Ehnes said, it is not just Frankfurt. I also know of cases in Amsterdam, Stuttgart, Zurich and Copenhagen.
    2) Racial profiling. I think we should not judge this, as the reported information is selective and anecdotal. I know of numerous cases of “Western” musicians also having problems. In our school, we get upwards of 100 Asian string players auditioning each semester, and there are 22 other schools in Germany, some of which certainly attract even more candidates, so do the numbers of how many Asian players are going through customs with instruments in Germany.
    3) If you are traveling with a valuable instrument, take suitable papers with you. Customs officials are there to collect taxes for their governments, and get scared and stressed, if somebody wants to “import” an instrument worth millions with no papers whatsoever. In over 30 years of touring, I have had some dramas (Brazil!), but never any major problems, as I had papers with me. Most customs officials are actually quite reasonable if you can eliminate reasonable doubt (see above comments from Mr. Ehnes and Bruce Carlson).
    My favorite encounter was in Italy, land of Stradivari, when the customs official asked me if my instrument was new. I said: “No, this viola is quite old.” And he replied, “Fine, please proceed”.

  9. I would say this represents an improvement of sorts. Whilst the number of Japanese violinists being stopped is disturbing the flexibility of customs in releasing the musician and the violin after only two hours is much better than before. Certainly though musicians (particularly Japanese ones) need to be very careful transiting Frankfurt Airport.

  10. Never trusted Frankfurt Airport since having DM5,000 nicked there by luggage handlers twenty years ago.

  11. Boycotting Frankfurt Airport is not the way to handle this problem. Asian musicians should boycott playing in German orchestras and refrain from any other musical performances in Germany until the issue is addressed in public and a promise is made to stop profiling these professionals. They could also encourage other musician of all nationalities to do the same. The Germans would be shocked and quickly move to put a stop to the silliness.

  12. I am told at this point, only thing you need is a letter stating the instrument belongs to you, and the key words to speak is “This is my personal effects”. I will carry my insurance claims and a letter from them. My question to everyone is, do I need to go into “NOTHING TO DECLARE” line? Or declare it? A part of me wants to go through it not attracting unnecessary attention to myself, but not sure what to do. I’m going to Paris (CDG) next.

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