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Top cellist has his bow snapped by US airport security

Alban Gerhardt entering the US last Wednesday found that a careless security officer, shutting the cello case, had broken broke his bow in two.

alban gerhardt bow

The bow is a rare and precious Heinrich Knopf.

The German cellist told The Strad it was  ‘an act of brutal and careless behaviour’. The magazine does not specify at which airport the incident occurred. We have contacted Alban for further details. We have also sought a reaction from the Transportation Security Administration.

Gerhardt had to borrow a bow for his performance of the Prokofiev symphony-concerto in Madison, Wisconsin.

Now read on here to find out what happened, in Alban’s own words.

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  1. Lukas Fierz says:

    Judging from the picture the C-string is dislocated. They could as well have broken the cello.

  2. Gerard Nicholls says:

    Reminds me of when the TSA destroyed Krystian Zimerman’s personal Steinway grand piano in 2001.

    • Bill Salchow says:

      Not this one. You need a new stick, But the frog, if in good condition, is worth something. Ask Klaus Gruenke.

    • Michael J Stewart says:

      Did they ever compensate Krystian Zimerman for that act of pure vandalism? It still fills me with rage when I think of that incident.

  3. Doesn’t surprise me. I had all my carefully packed camera gear taken out, lens caps removed and then stuffed back in without replacing caps and scratching several lenses. You may as well ask a monkey to do microsurgery.

  4. Reggie Benstein says:

    I have always wondered if broken bows like this one are reparable. Any luthiers or knowledgeable musicians who can explain ?

    • Whether an instrument or a bow can be repaired at all depends a lot on how it was broken. In most cases, the more valuable the object, the greater the loss in resale value. Drop a nice bow on its tip, and you can possibly repair it so that it can be used to play again, sometimes even quite satisfactorily so. But this could easily turn a $50,000 bow into a repaired bow worth maybe $2,000. And this is where people need to check the fine print of their insurance policies: There are many policies out there which will not cover anything other than the cost of the repair job! Insuring loss of intrinsic value is a whole other cup of tea.

      • Dan Loandre says:

        I fully agree with everyone that the TSA is a bunch of fucking imbecile brutes. But anyone who spends $50,000 on a bow is also an imbecile.

        • Dear Dan Loandre, when you are a top level musician like Alban Gerhardt, you deserve only the finest bows and cellos. Nobody has the right to break down your property, especially when you book a seat for you instrument, instead of checking it in, just to avoid any damage. I feel very sorry about that because every time i travel, I have the same anxiety about my instrument. This should change very soon.

          • A $50,000 bow would not have been in the cello case; It would have its own special case, which would be a carry-on item.

            There is ALWAYS another side to the story. When I travel with my instrument, I am always friendly with the agents on a human level and help them to realize what they are inspecting (I also carry expensive camera gear in addition to my $30,000 instrument). They have always been careful with my belongings and I thank them for their work. I constantly see people treating them rudely while they are just trying to do their jobs. Start with a smile and some kindness and I’ll bet you will be treated fairly and cautiously.

          • another orchestra musician says:

            I think that Scott, above, speaks wisdom.

            To the security officer tasked with keeping weapons from entering aircraft cabins, a cello bow looks like perfect concealment for an icepick. To the TSA staff paid minimum wage for listening to travelers insult them all day, a cello bow looks like the flyswatter that hangs above a horse’s ass. Musicians are well advised to pack their delicate instruments in robust, roomy, well-padded cases that provide dedicated compartments for instrument accessories – and to be as polite and encouraging as they possibly can when passing through inspection.

        • Professionals often have antique bows on loan from museumes and such.

        • If you check current prices for the finest bows, you’ll find that these are often valued much higher than that:

          Amazing, isn’t it, that such a little piece of wood might cost so much? Indeed, of all instruments, the violin can be either one of the cheapest or one of the most expensive. No other instrument seems to run the gamut of prices as do string instruments.

          • So is a Tourte bow really as good as the price suggests or is part of that price also the historical value?

        • Bows can be far more expensive than that and for good reason. Try getting a Picasso for $50,000. I’m certain that he took fewer hours to paint a picture than a master bow maker took to make a bow. In many ways they’re undervalued which is what makes them such a great investment. I can’t see a Knopf bow being worth $50,000. Seems a bit steep.

          • @Alan: “I can’t see a Knopf bow being worth $50,000. Seems a bit steep.”

            Agreed … I just pulled a figure out of the air as an example. $6,000 – $8,000 might have been more realistic here. But it could have been a more expensive one.

        • Excuse me, sir, but I would respecfully like to reply that my viola and bow are the tools of my trade and that I have spent 59 years of my life trying to share the beauty and wonder of music. I sense that you are frustrated…perhaps that you think that musicians live in a fantasy world and are not aware of the economic realities of the crisis. That makes me so sad…We are all trying to make a living, and to give you a gift of music that I wish could lighten your world for a while. Could make you smile. I am retired from the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Holland and all of our concerts were broadcast, free of charge, on radio and tv. Music is not elitist, as I seem to sense from your response. Please share the joy with us!

          • Piers Allbrook says:

            It is not the monetary value of the bow it is the total and complete ignorance and disrespect that is generated by a culture, or more lack of culture, that runs the USA and is infecting the rest of the world. Please note I said runs the USA there are a multitude of good USA citizens whose aspirations are moral and cultured.

    • What a shame! I do hope that there is some recourse for the poor cellist.
      Reggie–broken bows can often be glued, but repairs to the shaft will often affect the flexibility, responsiveness, strength, and camber of the the bow. Also, not in the least–a bow with a repaired break is only valued at a small fraction of what it was before.
      I can’t quite tell, but the bow in the picture looks like the break is splintered, making a repair very difficult, if not impossible. A long, clean and un-splintered break does stand a good chance of a repair holding over the duration, but Mr. Gerhardt is probably now looking for a new bow (hopefully paid for by the TSA!).

    • Nelson Armitano says:

      Of course it could be repaired, and quite nicely. But that’s not the question … Although its playability and looks could be restore to perfection by the good specialists, its worth will not. The depreciation of the bow’s value is an added tragedy to the unfortunate owner.

    • Doug Beyer says:

      Mr. Loandre: It is clear you have little or no knowledge of the cost of bows for string instruments.

    • They can be repaired but the value plummets and, because the path of the sound vibrations has been damaged, the sound quality is also damaged. This is permanent damage. Heartbreaking. I must say that the customs officers at the many airports I have visited always ask ME to show them my instrument.

  5. Yes, the bow is reparable….but will never be the same and has lost the vast majority of its value. Of coures, that doesn’t cover the fact that for most of us, our instruments and bows are like family members….you can’t fix that kind of loss. :( :( :(

  6. simon shaw says:

    Yes reggie they can usually be repaired when broken there although they lose over 90% of the value. Its a tricky repair but entirely possible. I have just repaired almost the exact same break in a very expensive Lamy bow.

  7. Starhey Morgan says:

    Maybe a bow case next time?

    • @Starhey Morgan: Yes, but…how would the bow case then be carried? If a cello case were to be designed from scratch with a reliable latching external sleeve of some sort that the bow case might slide into, maybe. But that would add weight and complexity, and still no guarantee that they wouldn’t then damage THAT. Carrying a bow case separately would cause more problems than it would solve.

  8. Marko Velikonja says:

    If I ever have to take anything out for inspection at airport security – and I don’t have anything worth what that bow must cost – I always do it myself, and put it back (together) myself. I assume the TSA officers refused to let him do it himself? Otherwise a very good reminder that he should.

    • Unfortunately all too often TSA personnel will not let you touch your own equipment — I’ve seen them get very threatening and angry if you attempt to secure your instrument. You’re supposed to stand there and watch as they destroy the tools of your livelihood and be damned polite about it as well.

      I helped a friend of mine check a tuba at the airport and we both not only got yelled at but were confronted with people holding firearms who physically pushed us out of the baggage area. They treated us like criminals.

      They can do what they want, there is no recourse.

      • Obviously what happened here was awful and this TSA agent should be reprimanded and possibly fired, but I have had lots of experience with TSA officers, and only one time did I have a major problem. An officer was holding my violin with one hand while inspecting the case. After politely but urgently pleading with the officer, he let me hold my violin while he inspected it. It is their policy to not allow people to hold objects that are being inspected so he was technically breaking the rules to let me hold my violin. We have to understand as musicians that many people have no idea how much an instrument or bow is worth or how important it is. Politely explaining that this instrument is your livelihood and has the same worth to you as a family member goes a long way in my experience. I’m not saying Gerhardt was rude or impolite, but walking into the airport preparing for war with security, as some do, isn’t a helpful attitude and it won’t get you anywhere.

  9. musicologyman says:

    I can’t imagine, though, that a repaired bow would respond mechanically the same way as before. Is it even possible for an expert to repair the bow so that it regains most of its elastic capabilities?

  10. Alicia Randisi-Hooker says:

    I have had a bow repair similar to this one, and it held for many years, but the bow was never the same in terms of balance, and it eventually met its demise when a student knocked it off its perch on the cello onto a stage floor. The issue is also lost value; a 50K bow that is underinsured is a huge loss, and finding bows of comparable caliber can take years. The feel of the bow in the player’s hand, the balance, the weight, are such personal things, and, while its easier to find something special if you have unlimited time and unlimited funds, it’s a real chore when time and money are hard to come by. I think, too, that he suffered the loss of another bow earlier this year or last. I really feel for him, and hope that players who travel out there will continue to exert some pressure on both the TSA and the airlines to train personnel in how to handle these precious and delicate tools of our trade.

  11. simon shaw says:

    Actually the repair I just did on the Lamy looked like the top of a pineapple it was so splintered. It looks almost identical to the pictured damage. And yes it IS a tricky repair but if done properly it doesnt affect the playability,flexibility, weight or balance point one bit. Ive done a lot of these repairs with a technique learned in Paris and if it holds then the repair is permanent and the only loss is in the value of the bow which as Roger points out basically amounts to a total loss. However as in the case of the Lamy I just finished it saves the bow in an entirely playable state if not the wallet.

    • Reggie Benstein says:

      Thanks for your reply.

    • Given where it appears to be snapped and the visual damage, are you certain it could be repaired back to its original playability, and without any adjustment in weight, flexibility and balance?

      • simon shaw says:


      • I’m not a string player, but I can imagine that the psychological effects of having to play with a repaired bow which one has owned and often played on in its previous state must be enormously difficult to overcome. It will never feel the same for that reason alone, even if the weight, balance etc. are the same, physically speaking.

        And there are so many intangible but very real factors that go into instrument and bow making which cannot be explained 100% scientifically — take the varnish, for example: musicians and luthiers alike have always agreed that Stradivarius’ varnish is one of the main factors in the special sound of his instruments. But no one has ever been able to faithfully reproduce that recipe, nor has it to my knowledge ever been thoroughly analysed from a chemical standpoint.

  12. The only time I’d let a TSA goon touch my violin case (not to begin to mention the violin and bows inside) would be after they’d sprayed CS gas in my face and shackled me hand and foot – and I can assure you that even at that point I’d still be vocal enough to ensure the whole immigration area knew what was going on…

    So far (touch violin wood) I’ve never had to open the case for anyone.

    • Reggie Benstein says:

      Rosalind, I don’t think we have a choice 100% of the time. Inspectors rifle through bags and open cases at any point.
      The only way a a person has full control of their luggage is if they take it through security and place it for ‘door check’ right before boarding the airplane. Not alway available on every airline of course….

    • I really think this is attitude is a huge problem. If a TSA officer says, “I need to open your case, ” you can’t fly into a rage. As Reggie says, you ain’t got a choice, unless you want to turn around and go home. When this has happened to me, I immediately explain that I totally understand, but that the violin is EXTREMELY fragile and EXTREMELY important to me personally. I’m not going to prevent them from doing their job, but I have to let them know, politely, that this object means the world to me. If I still see a problem, I whisper quietly how much my instrument is worth in a desperate tone of voice. I’ve never had an issue after doing this.

  13. Tom Philips says:

    Just another indication of how much “Affirmative incompetence” (i.e. the types of people hired as TSA airport security agents) is ruining Western societies.

  14. I travel with my “irreplaceable” instrument all the time. I have insurance for reasons as simple as this one. I’m sure he does too. He’ll cry a little tear (as we all are here – lets face it, this is bad), collect the insurance, begin the process to find a new one, have this one fixed and sell it. Coming out a little bit ahead of the game. ALSO the article states that he had to borrow a bow? I cry BS on that one. No self-respecting cellist (or violinist/violist/bassist) would have to do that because they all have more than 1 bow – as is clearly depicted in the picture. Just as I would never travel with only 1 reed, he is not traveling with 1 bow. Horrible situation, but a realistic bummer of what can happen with TSA. Goes to prove yet one more time that we just have to be prepared for “worst case scenarios” these days when traveling. Could have been worse…could have been the cello.

    • The other was a baroque bow, unsuited to Prokofiev.

      • A baroque bow should be convex, but the bow still in the case looks concave, like a modern (post-1800 or so) bow.

        • There are many different period bow types. Here are some examples:

          And when travelling, one should always loosen the bow hair to relieve the tension on the bow — this would also change its curvature.

          • Actually, not only while travelling, but whenever the bow is put away.

          • Thanks for the interesting link. It explains exactly what I said – during the baroque period, bows were generally convex. The examples in the picture show what the bow developed into from the baroque to the post-baroque period, not varieties of baroque bows. When you loosen the hair on a bow, it does indeed change its curvature – but not that much. A convex bow does not turn into a concave one when you loosen the hair. So the bow in the case is almost certainly not a baroque bow.

          • @Michael:
            Norman must have had a reason to say that it was a baroque bow. It might have been one of the transition types, also not so good for playing Prokofiev, but simpler to describe in 30 words or less as a “baroque bow”. Maybe Norman can tell us more? I’ll just leave it at that.

          • @Robert, Michael,
            The unbroken bow in the picture above isn’t a baroque bow. It may not be a bow that Mr. Gerhardt wishes to play Prokofiev on, but it isn’t what would usually be understood by the terminology “baroque bow”, which as Michael rightly says would be curved the other way (tension or none).
            [The idea of it being transitional is a red herring - if it were it would be early-classical at the oldest, and best described as a 'classical' bow, not 'baroque'].

          • What about the first bow depicted here as a “late baroque bow”? Doesn’t look convex at all:

            Now since I’m not a string player, and not much of an authentic period performance enthusiast either, I’ll definitely back out of this discussion now.

          • Maybe – but it’s hard to tell without seeing the bow in the case as a whole, especially the tip. It does look distinctly concave to me though while the bow pictured here is really neither concave nor convex. I am not sure how “authentic” that really is or if it is the bow maker’s own design for a bow which is kind of in between. He says it’s “my idea of a late baroque bow”. Of course, the developments and changes in design occurred gradually and various bow makers from various places came up with different designs, so one can not say that there has never been a bow like this straight one. But I have never seen one quite like this before.

  15. This doesnt surprise me at all! On 9th July 2001 I broke my neck very badly (Jefferson Fracture of C1 in six places), I had to wear a Jerome Collar 24/7. I was allowed to travel but told how dangerous it was to remove the collar, I could end up quadraplaegic or die quite easily if I dislodged the bones around the shattered C1 – In August I decided to go back from the UK to my other home in Santa Monica (LA) to spend a couple of weeks in the Sun, on my return, passing through Security at LAX, the officer told me I had to remove my collar – I wished i could have filmed all this, I had a letter from my Neuro Surgeon explaining the danger of removing my collar, but to no avail, I insisted that the man call his supervisor which he did. After telling this guy that if I died on his watch, my family would be taking many $Millions from the US Gov TSA – after over half an hour the LAX senior security boss came to see what was going on, he took one look, inspected my collar visually, said to me it was OK for me to pass through and said to me have a safe flight Mr P.. Common Sense does eventually prevail but you have to fight for it!

  16. Something I’m not totally clear about here: Did he check the cello as hold baggage (where it was opened without him being present) or was he travelling with a seat booked for the instrument and the case was opened at security checkpoint?

  17. The TSA in the USA is wacko; the province of little men and beefy women imbued with power for the first time in their heretofore sorry lives.

    They’re stupid, far too many of them to be remotely acceptable in a service industry; universally ignorant of culture (they come from the Da-Glo Elvis on black velvet school of art appreciation), and frankly pretty much useless.

    I can’t think of any instances where Gomer and Gertie have actually prevented any sort of transportation incident (those are usually spotted well BEFORE the cavity searching sadists come into play).

    It’ll never, ever, happen of course, but a two week strike by all passengers would shut down the airlines and, just maybe, bring them to their senses.

    The people who can make the changes, representatives in America’s congress, pretty much mirror their constituency, so even under the best of circumstances the See Thru Your Clothes X-Ray Lobby can defeat any chance of change — not a problem for our elected DC officials who travel first class and pretty much (but not always) get a clear pass at the airport or a private jet from their civilian benefactors and are blissfully ignorant of the hassles the majority of flyers face.

    I’ve got half a million UA miles I’ll sell.

    • Martin Locher says:

      Having those miles seems to be a burden for you. I volunteer to take some off you to ease your mind.

    • The airlines have no control over the TSA, though.

      • Piers Allbrook says:

        To whom one may ask are they responsible; or conversly who is responsible for them? A publication of the complaint procedure to muzzle them might be appropriate and a notice to this effect displayed in an are adjacent to their field of activity.

  18. Jeffrey Gerard Holsen says:

    And is that the sound of jackboots growing louder I hear? If we artists fail to call out abuses, savagery and inhumanity of our own system, sooner or later we end up following orders given by those who neither understand nor appreciate art….and why should they?

  19. Anthony Adams says:

    All TSA agents are given an IQ test on application. If the result is an IQ in the triple digits, the person is not hired.

  20. So does anyone know if in a case like this, one can have the damage documented, maybe by a superior of the agent, and file a claim for compensation for the damage?

  21. This is such a shame (breaking of the rare bow) . Each year we must lose more of these rare and precious instruments due to carelessness and crime. One day there maybe none.

  22. I would love to know more about this and find out what actually transpired from the discussion about opening the case, to how the bow was actually broken. As a cellist, I share the frustration over the ignorance of airport security regarding the care and wellbeing of an instrument with my fellow musicians.

    However, as delicate as a cello bow is, the case would have had to have been forcefully “smashed” down on it to break it in half. It sounds like there may have been some other things at play here, including but not limited to a possible crack which was exacerbated by a case top closing on it. It wouldn’t take much for a bow which is cracked under all the pressure from the tension of the horsehair to snap. Was there an argument?

    I must say I have absolutely no idea what happened since I wasn’t there. It doesn’t matter at this point- I feel terribly for Alban.

    • No, the case would not have to be smashed…try to lock your finger in your case and you will see. Except that, with your finger, you would not try to force it shut…it would hurt too much. I suspect that the case was taken off the moving runner (by the xray machine) before the owner could intervene and rescue it.

  23. Martin Locher says:

    I don’t understand all this anger thrown at one group of employees.

    It’s like in all jobs. Sometimes someone makes a mistake. The earth won’t explode because of a broken instrument. It can happen and the owner can get compensated for it. There’s an app for that, ah sorry an insurance.

    Security people at airports don’t really earn a lot. Be nice to them, even if they have a bad day. Then your chances to get through security checks unharmed and quickly are extremely high.

    I.e. it might help if you’d thank those people if they deal with a situation quickly, like I did after a woman yelling insults at a security guy because she insited on carrying her knife. I was quiet glad I didn’t have to wait very long because that gentleman stayed calm. To my shame, I don’t even remember the airport. Bet I’d remember if he’d hade made a scene?

    Bet won, if you said yes. Munich airport, boarding at a low cost airline’s gate. One passenger who recently purchased a yearly card for speedy boarding which had not arrived before he left on his trip, was not allowed his early boarding, despite he showed the purachse receipt well before boarding even started.

    I was at that time walking with canes because of a foot injury. To easier carry my on board luggage I splitted that up into two large light bags. When I saw the scene these airport employees made in the other case, I put one bag into the other and carried through only one bag. I was right to do so. A woman had to put a little bag, I think with a freshly purchased book, into her larger bag, said something like “bullshit” after she was already let through. Then the agent took her ticket and sent her to the back of the boarding line. A total overreaction. That whole boarding team was a mess. I complained later on the plane. I was told to file a report. To which I said, I just did, don’t expect me to do more to increase your service level. We both smiled and my anger at that airline had vanished. And yes, I don’t remember her name, which is a shame, cause was rather pretty.

    So to cut a long story short: It’s the negative things we remember well. All those times the employees at airports handle our requests and situations well or even well above standard, we tend to forget rather quickly.

  24. The airport should be sued over that.. Knowing the officer couldn’t afford a repair.. How awful:(

  25. How hideous it is see a musical instrument (and a fine one, at that) treated with such reckless brutality!
    The linked article is now showing that the incident occurred at O’Hare International Airport, Chicago during an inspection by TSA staff.

  26. The picture shows a second bow in the case.

  27. If making a complaint on behalf of Albern would help..? Though I’d dare say it would get lost in the mists of TSA’s bureaucracy.

    TSA Contact Center Information

    Hours: Monday – Friday: 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. Eastern Time
    Weekends/Holidays: 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Eastern Time
    Phone: 1-866-289-9673

  28. Jeri Stilwell says:

    Alban is my favorite cellst. He has played with the Oregon Symphony many times, and to my knowledge has had no trouble with his cello & bows. There is no excuse for such treatment. How many bombs can be hid in a cello bow?

    So come to Portland with your instruments! When my late husband came back from Europe with his new violin the customs guys had no idea what to charge him! Then he got the violin out and played a mini-concert for the inspectors and a crowd that gathered around. They charged him $75.00.

  29. James Dough says:

    I cannot believe that there are people trying to defend TSA bastards. No, I will NOT be nice to them after multiple insults and damages I had to endure. They don’t even deserve their minimum wage and they should be thrown into food processor to feed chickens.

  30. Peter - a different one from the other Peter says:

    Poor old Alban Gerhard has had problems with bows before.
    His blog ( ) recounts how he broke two bows in one concert rehearsal, in April last year.
    The loss of a good bow is pretty upsetting, but he does say “I decided not to depend on my Kittel bow any more, I can or can’t play on anything”. Spoken like the true pro that he his.
    I think he also had a smashed cello neck last year, but I can’t remember the details (and I may be wrong).
    The joy of being on the road.

  31. He must be playing dangerous music! Of course, his bow was broken and it happens. We all know that TSA people aren’t trained in very much about the true value of things like string instruments, which come under the heading of fine art collectibles, being both valuable as finely crafted instruments and works of unique art. sounds like Alban Gerhardt has had a lot of bad luck, tho in his travels. sad. hope he has good insurance.

  32. Where did you buy that bow?

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