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Oh, no! A fourth Asian player has violin seized at Frankfurt Airport

Customs officials at Frankfurt Airport have now stopped a Chinese violinist, Feng Ning, and confiscated the 1721 Stradivarius he was carrying. He is facing a demand for 19 percent of its value, approximately 700,000 Euros.

The seizure has made headlines in Bild, reinforcing the impression that musicians of Asian extraction are being targeted at one particular airport. This is the fourth known incident in less than six months, clearly no coincidence.

Musicians are advised to avoid Frankfurt Airport until the German customs authorities conform to the guidelines practised elsewhere in the EU.

feng ning

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  1. So it happened again :(
    is there any petition to sign now?

  2. The “power of nightmares”, so to speak (with apologies to Adam Curtis).

  3. That’s terrible!
    This is probably one of the most blatant forms of racial profiling that I’ve ever seen. Is there really no petition or protest going around?

  4. Outrageous policy – mind boggles as to how this policy was made and enforced.
    Let us hope that this ridiculous situation is swiftly made right in a swift manner and returned to Feng Ning.
    I echo the suggestion of a petition to prevent this situation happening in the future.

  5. Lukas Fierz says:

    SORRY, I found other errors. This version replaces the two previous noes.

    Mr Feng Ning won the Paganini competition 2006. A youtube film from 2011 shows hat he is a gentle man of outstanding musicality:

    Googling reveals that 2007 he was based in Berlin and at this time played a modern violin by Stefan Peter Greiner.

    According to the BILD-Zeitung the Stradivarius is on loan by an owner outside the EU (a foundation from Hongkong). Taxes can be avoided, but the procedures are complicated. Mr. Feng Ning would have had to declare the instrument on bringing it into the EU. It would then have been confiscated by the customs officers until a deposit had been made as a security in the amount of the import taxes (EU 700’000), this for the case he sells it in Germany. The deposit remains until the instrument is reexported. No interest is paid on this deposit!

    As an alternative he could apply beforehand for a carnet-ATA at the local chamber of commerce. For this he would also have to give a substantial deposit as security. The violin and the carrnet-ATA has then to be shown and the carnet stamped at each exit and entry from and to the EU on both sides of the border. A journey from Berlin to Istanbul and back means showing the violin four times. Also if borders outside the EU are crossed (e.g.going from Australia to Japan) the violin and the carnet-ATA have to be shown and the carnet stamped on both sides of the border. If the carnet-ATA is not properly used the violin is again confiscated and the usual taxes and penalties are due.

    Proper handling of the carnet-ATA can cause delays of many hours, since trains are often not manned by customs officials or customs offices are often closed on evenings and weekends. For a musician travelling outside the EU frequently and on tight schedules it is difficult and sometimes not possible to fulfill these obligations.

    In a previous discussion somebody pretended that showing the instrument to customs officials proposes no risks since they will not touch it. The recent case of Mr.Gerhard broken cello bow clearly proves the contrary.

    So Mr. Feng Ning would probably better have to stick to his Greiner violin if traveling outside the EU.

    There was an analogue case in Switzerland three years ago. An Austrian citizen resident in Switzerland had a valuable violin on loan from the Austrian National bank. This violin was also seized and confiscated at the Zürich airport, which caused some diplomatic disagreements between Austria and Switzerland. After studying the problem the Swiss authorities realised that the carnet-ATA is not a workable option. They therefore created a solution whereby such a loaned instrument has to be declared and identified once and for all, and then can travel to and from Switzerland without further formalities.

    A final word to the situation in Frankfurt: In the first two of these four cases the seized violins were seized. violins were only in released upon pressure from the ministerial level. This seems to have given raise to misgivings and judicial complaints by customs officials at the front. Seems they take their revenge in this way now.

    Would be high time to adopt the simplified Swiss rules for such loaned instruments.

  6. We have to discuss two separate questions here.

    The frist one is whether Mr. Ning declared the instrument at customs and carried the appropriate documents (Bild says he didn’t, but I never trust Bild). It should be clear by now that this is a legal necessesity whenever entering or leaving the EU with a valuable instrument, be it in Frankfurt, London, Lisbon or Sofia. If he did not, well, then the seizure is legal.

    The second one is whether customs at Frankfurt airport practise racial profiling. This is hard to prove, but I would assume that almost every customs and immigration authority in the world does some kind of profiling based on race and/or nationality (just ask any citizen of an Arab country about his/her experiences with US immigration) – the only ones to admit this openly are the Israelis, but this doesn’t meant the others don’t do it. Maybe (I’m not into this) they’re currently trying to get some Asia-based organised contrabandists of antiques – then the musicians affected by this would be some sort of collateral damage.

    • The racial profiling question seems irrelevant to me, unless I am missing some important point – it just sounds like they are being hawk-eyed about expensive musical instruments coming in from abroad, and where else from outside the EU would the instruments come from – seems like it’s likely to be either America or Asia (not many concert violinists from Saudi Arabia or Madagascar tour Europe, right?) What difference does it make if the player is Asian?

      • Dear Tomas2,

        there are plenty western musicians traveling in and out of the EU with expensive instruments. Dare i say, if the airport wanted to be hawk-eyed about such instruments, there might be more western musicians with expensive equipment compared to Asians, but the number won’t be less. Where are the headlines for those?


  7. Klaus Schumacher says:

    It is painful and embarrassing for a German (amateur) musician to read about these peculiar acts in Frankfurt airport. For all I can see, there are some really very, very Germany just following the official rules extremely closely, and clearly without use of common sense or their own brains. But let me add also, that I have had my violin taken away on entering Germany at Stuttgart airport, until I could proof that I had originally had it in Germany. So, it is not all Asians and it is not all Frankfurt airport. Also, I would urge every visitor to read

    Same as James Ehnes advise: carry your papers and use the red channel.

    • I have a question. I am a citizen of an EU country and I will be transiting Frankfurt on my way to Miami. Will I be bothered with any of this? I have an inexpensive violin which i bought from someone and obviously i have no papers for it.
      Thank you

      • Klaus Schumacher says:

        Christina, to the best of my knowledge, if you don’t enter Germany, noone will bother you ever. Normaly, in transit you stay in the international part of the airport. If you change terminal this might be different. In that case, I would choose the red channel, show the violin and my boarding pass for the next leg of your flight and I would be 99.99% sure that nothing happens.

  8. He should have told these monkeys, that he is playing some new 100€ instrument…

  9. Someone give him James Ehnes’ phone number. They share the same agent for Germany…

  10. John Soloninka says:

    “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!” What Strad/Guad/Rogeri/etc owner in the world is travelling without appropriate papers these days???? The more stories there are, the more prepared everyone should become!

  11. Kurt Evans says:

    I don’t see why everyone is making such a big deal about this. I am a musician and travel with two instruments, (both of high value) and also carry a brief case with me. In my brief case is music, and PAPERS showing proof of purchase for my instruments. I have been stopped numerous times and all I’ve had to do is show customs documentation; 3 minutes later I am on my way. Do I feel insulted when I am stopped? Absolutely not. Believe it or not customs is protecting musicians and instrument owners by asking for proof of ownership. 2 years ago I read an article about customs successfull seizing a stollen cello at an airport and returning the instrument to its owner. These people are just doing their job and I think it’s silly people are accusing Frankfurt airport of racial profiling. Feng Ning should be intelligent enough to travel with documentation just as one would be smart enough to drive a vehicle with proof of registration in their glove compartment.

  12. Of course it is racial profiling…..Italian being the race!!!!! Why aren’t they seizing Knilling, Glasel and Hopf violins? From where I sit, it is just about the money.

  13. Is this even legal? On what grounds are they confiscating instruments?

    Why doesn’t somebody like the Nippon Music Foundation sue the Frankfurt airport authorities?

    • They are ostensibly guarding against scams where people might be selling valuable instruments without declaring them and paying necessary taxes. It’s like walking through customs with a suitcase full of cash. You have to have paperwork to explain yourself. Clearly something is going on here, whether with the players not having proper paperwork or the customs people misusing the rules somehow.

      • I am sorry, but suspicion alone is no ground for taking the instrument and asking 19% of it’s value in return…what’s the purpose? Then why not confiscate a laptop or a briefcase…despite their value I might just be selling them illegally and not declaring my earnings. The theory is the same even if the value is different. There should be no prejudice.

  14. It seems that the customs officers have some sort of prejudice against people who go through the green channel at the airport with items that are worth more than the legaly allowed €400,— limit, or who are evading the input VAT. How dare they!

    • So one is not allowed to pass customs with any item worth more than 400 euros? A standard laptop, a nice suit, an iPad, and a fairly fancy watch are each beyond this price. It sounds to me like there are some issues with legislation which these events are highlighting.

      That being said, the problem here is clearly that musicians aren’t being informed. As another poster stated, if it’s simply a matter of declaring possession of the instrument, it would be taken care of properly by all informed possessors. Then either the organizations financing the ownership of these fine instruments or the owners themselves are responsible for letting the musicians know.

      More likely than simple racial profiling (note that assuming that Asian musicians are more likely to be carrying Stradivarius and Villaume instruments is a positive profile) is that Asian musicians are less likely to be fluent in European languages and therefore prone to making simple mistakes such as not filling out the correct forms or handling items in the absolutely correct manner..

      I’ll also mention that it’s very possible that musicians don’t think of their instruments to be “valuable items” in the same way that bars of gold are valuable items. I consider a copy of a rare musical manuscript straight from a composer’s pen to be of irreplaceable value if practically worthless. While these instruments do have market value, I imagine that the musicians think of their instruments in the same way. For them, it’s just a piece of the puzzle the same way that a concert hall is.

      Fortunately for me, I’ll never be stopped by customs with my 1908 Steinway.

      • Of course one is allowed to go through customs with items worth more that €430 (the €400 I posted before was a mistake, sorry). One has to go through the red channel and declare them
        “Durch den „grünen Kanal“ darf man am Flughafen gehen, wenn die eingeführten Waren nicht teurer als 430 Euro waren. Wählt man diesen Weg zu unrecht, ist die Steuerschuld automatisch entstanden. Dann müssen die Beamten ermitteln, ob nur eine Formvorschrift verletzt wurde. In diesem Fall habe der Reisende schon gar keinen Vorsatz, Steuern zu hinterziehen, sagte der Hamburger Zollrechtler Lothar Harings von der Wirtschaftskanzlei Graf von Westphalen. Seiner Einschätzung nach wissen viele Künstler überhaupt nicht, dass sie ihre teuren Instrumente anmelden müssen”

  15. Perhaps this customs problem is a blessing in disguise- just think of all fiddle players who may think twice about
    peddling their same dreary wares in other countries – they may stay home and perhaps learn what it is to be
    a musician instead of a circus performer playing the same show piece works ad nauseam . They
    may even learn to understand what the violin is all about other than a finger board for their little scurrying
    fingers to impress the unwashed . There was a reliable study in which some fine old violins were up against
    modern top makers and lo behold ! the audience seemed always to prefer the modern instrument for the
    sound .There are top makers in most countries in which most circus fiddlers perform -use the modern “home”
    instrument – your audience knows no difference .But in this age when interest in antiquity is based on” how
    much is it worth ” and the name attached -fiddle player Ms. X or Mr. X will want you to know that while they saw
    away endlessly the same numbers it is all sawed upon a rare Guarneri or Strad -we ain’t going to bore you to
    death with just any old violin but one that is worth inflated millions . Perhaps if customs
    became even more stringent in their attitudes we may benefit in having violin musicians . Now that would be
    a change .

  16. Before I crap in my pants at the airport, can someone enlighten me on this now:
    -I reside in Germany
    -I have an expensive cello on loan to me from a private collector in Asia
    -I have an official document from a law firm in Hong Kong stating that the cello belongs to the collector, not me, and I am only borrowing it
    -The document also includes the contract of sale to the current owner/collector from the previous owner in North America with a full description of the instrument and photos, plus the value

    I am reasoning that there is no tax liability here since I am not allowed to sell the instrument, and will have to return it to the owner eventually in Asia, where if came from. But is there anything special for residents of the EU, as opposed to someone residing outside of the EU coming in just for concerts?

    Thanks in advance for any helpful advice!

    • Forgot to mention: as everyone else already said, the Carnet ATA is just not possible for me…I don’t have that kind of money!

    • James Creitz says:

      when leaving Germany, you can ask for a “Rückwarenregelung Auskuntsblatt” at the customs office in any international airport in Germany. Take A COPY of your papers with you: they will be attached to this form. Filling out the form and having it stamped takes about 5 minutes. With this stamped form, you will have no problem bringing the instrument back into Germany. You do not have to be the owner to do this, just the person taking it out of the country with the intention of bringing it back. Hope this helps,

      • Hi Jim,

        Thanks so much for this advice! Since you seem to be so knowledgeable about this matter, I hope you don’t mind me troubling you with another question: does it matter if I forgot to declare it when it first came into the EU with me last year? For example, won’t the customs officer wonder why I didn’t declare it the first time? I thought that I only needed the documents in case I was stopped.

        • James Creitz says:

          I am not an expert, but I have had no problem with this system for many years. I have gotten pulled out and checked numerous times, and as soon as I show them this document, they wave me on. When getting the document, they have never asked me how the instrument got to Germany. They are much more concerned about instruments entering the country, as that is where they can collect duties. But I suppose that is no guarantee that they won’t get tougher now.

  17. This is a robbery to the musicians! The 4th time!

  18. Frederick Turner says:

    What kind of training do these customs agents receive that enavles them to differentiate between a real Strad and a cheap knockoff? And is no one traveling to Deutschland with an antique brass or woodwind?

  19. James Creitz says:

    Many thanks! You are doing all musicians a great service by bringing attention to this. At the very least, many more will now know that we should not be traveling internationally without proper papers and documentation for our valuable instruments!
    I think we should however be very careful about how we frame these issues and not be in a hurry to judge. The recent publicized cases of Asian musicians having their instruments impounded in Frankfurt may indicate racial profiling, but may also just be the tip of the iceberg. As James Ehnes and I pointed out on your recent similar post, many western musicians have also had similar episodes in numerous European airports. Let us not jump to conclusions, in part encouraged by your headlines. There are certainly many others going through this who are not as renowned as those you have written up.
    It seems that the German Customs is in a battle with the Finance Minister at the moment, and this is ultimately good, as it may lead to a clear structure by which traveling musicians can import their instruments for professional reasons without unreasonable burdens.
    Let us also be honest: it is a crime to import any object above a certain value in almost every country without proper identification or taxation: this is called smuggling. It would seem many musicians are, with the best of intentions, smuggling instruments: this is how the law sees it and how they risk being treated by customs officials who are just doing their job. As James Ehnes kindly pointed out, if you carry proper documentation, the customs officials, at least in Germany, are quite reasonable about it. And anybody traveling to the EU with an instrument at this moment would be well advised to have adequate documentation.
    Best Regards,
    James Creitz

  20. NIng Feng is one of the best violinists I have ever heard and have ever been taught by. This is an indisputable tragedy.

  21. Dear Mr. Lebrecht,

    You can play the “race” card about the “fourth Asian targeted” or you could consider that the authorities in question already know you will play that card and have decided that in spite of that perpetual and oft-mindless accusation a message needs to be sent to China about its use of musicians and the economics thereof. There might even be a case being investigated about Chinese instrument legitimacy.

    I hope you are aware that there is a full-bore, truly history-making cyberwar going on with China right now and the situation you are trying to put a racial spin on may be part of that.

    China is no longer limiting its hacking operations to American government, military, and big business. They are going after private persons too. I have been watching this at my own site with the classifications of “forbidden” that some of my pages get, and other phenomena. For example, I have decided that the “Canadian Pharmacy” is a Chinese operation.

    I wish you would allow that by this time German police are aware that some people will scream bloody murder about race and that they might have a bigger picture they are having to deal with. Maybe you are completely right – but screaming your head off about it could be completely wrong. And if you never learn otherwise it may only mean that the case was handled well, and then you will scream your head off about it until doomsday for no real reason.

    When I was on tour in Germany and Austria in 2006 the Americans let me go unknowingly through customs without a signed passport – ignorant me, I didn’t know I had to sign it – the Germans were the ones who noticed this on my way back. So I signed my passport on German soil. Thank you, Germany, for turning my passport from “invalid” to valid. It’s that kind of responsible border patrolling we could have used on 9/11.

  22. We’ve heard a lot of stories about Chinese hackers, and Chinese cyberwar, and these stories have been circulated and recycled so many times that the message is now loud and clear with a patina of credibility.
    Yet, we have not seen a lot of hard evidence, and what we have seen are circumstantial connections.

    In this world of black flag operations, where governments and government contractors profit from peddling fear, it is it not also conceivable that it is all a canard to approve yet another multibillion dollar military program and demonize China as the new enemy in this never ending global “war on terra”? After all, this was what was done during the McCarthy Red Scare with Communists lurking under every park bench and in every mailbox, and the Reagan era when the Soviets were accused of coordinating a global terrorist war (which even included an alleged attempt on the life of the Pope), and of every day inventing new weapons of mass destruction that could only have been conceived in the Twilight Zone, and then of course we saw it later with “Al Qaeda” and its alleged air-conditioned multi-story command and control center cave in the Tora Bora (never found) and its nuclear dirty bombs (would never work, even if they existed), and multinational sleeper cells (never proven). My sense is, let’s see the proof, all of it, and then decide.

    In the meantime, we have a lot to learn from each other, so maybe we should enjoy doing it.

    • “Ed,”

      Here is the evidence you want to pretend doesn’t exist:

      There is rather a difference between McCarthyism, a movement within the US, and a proven attack by a foreign government. Spare your breath about live and let live – you will need that breath, holding it with your head in the sand.

      As to the tired complaint about “demonizing,” not all demonization is wrong. Hello, it is perfectly fair to demonize someone who is actually attacking you. (Of course, you would have to have the smarts to know you were being attacked.) It works this way, Ed: when someone is attacking you, they are the “bad guys.” They are called “the enemy.” Maybe you missed that memo at age five?

      As to your remark about this being the era of “black flag operations,” I doubt you are talking about bug spray. Since your remark is otherwise incoherent, let me suggest that you perhaps mean “black BAG operations.” But you cannot be trying to say China was set up, with a whole twelve-story building full of false evidence planted by false, war-mongering Americans; it seems safer to believe you don’t know what you are talking about.

      China is culturally disadvantaged, in that it believes that it can deny something indefinitely. It seems to have no clue that in the West we are alert to persons “in denial.” China demanded proof, and now it’s got the proof; and yet it still denies. We are dealing with dangerously sub-standard intelligences – but I hope we do not underestimate them.

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