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Breaking: Paris Customs seize a cellist’s Guarnerius

Raphael Merlin reports on his Facebook page that his 1680 Andrea Guarnerius has been held at Charles de Gaulle airport since Monday.

saisie de mon violoncelle ce matin à CDG, en tant que “marchandise prohibée” (“bien culturel”) : 5 heures à la douane, pour rédiger un pauvre PV d’une page et demie.

raphael merlin



Raphael was returning home from a US tour with the Ebène Quartet. He has been told that it will take at least a week before the paperwork is processed and the cello, which he has played since 2008, can be considered for release.

‘I made a mistake in not going through the red channel,’ he is reported as saying in The Strad.

UPDATE: And here’s a very rapid happy ending.


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  1. Elizabeth Balay says:


  2. R. James Tobin says:

    What is the “red channel”?

    • Martin Locher says:

      red channel = you carry goods which are or might be subject to customs duties.

      green channel = you carry no such goods or you’re being cheeky

  3. Incredible behaviour of French authorities – Quatuor Ebène being one of the most outstanding gems of international and especially French music-culture!

    From other incidents and after extensive correspondence with the German Customs information centre I have been informed that on entering the EU:

    Professional musicians who use their instruments professionaly (“gewerblich”) have to declare their instruments orally by going through the red channel. The carnet-ATA is only optional, in no case obligatory and as said above expensive and also not practicable on a tight tour schedule because of time consuming paperwork on both sides of each border.

    In contrast amateur musicians not using the instrument for professional purposes can enter the EU through the green channel even with valuable instruments.

    By an e-mail of 25. of April 2013 I was also informed that the German Financial Ministry tries to modify these EU-rules in a way that professional musicians would be treated in the same way as amateur musicians, so that portable musical instruments would not anymore have to be declared at the EU-border. However it is not known if and when such a modification could take place.

    In the meantime application of existing rules seems to be chaotic: Two weeks ago I violinist I know entered the EU at the Vienna airport and tried to declare his valuable violin going through the red channel. The customs officers refused to do the paperwork and give the appropriate stamps, but let the violinist enter the EU without the necessary formalities, which is clearly against the law.

    Musicians should contact their political representatives, denounce the inpossible state of affairs and ask for practicable rules.


  4. Consider how all of these regulations for ordinary people are becoming ever more restrictive and police-like in their application. Monsieur Merlin was detained and his property- what he uses for his profession- was seized because failed to follow the correct carnet procedure, even though he had some documentation to verify provenance and ownership and was able to produce the rest within two hours of his detention and the seizure of his cello. The initial customs action was maybe ok, but to keep him and his cello in a bureaucratic box for another week or two, when everything was made available almost immediately, is unconscionable- it is stupid, costly (for the State and its victim), and an arbitrary exercise of power.

    Beyond this, there is the disconnect where working people are detained and their valuable business property seized and impounded, while, on the other hand, multinationals and financial traders act with impunity, push for zero regulation, and leverage it all through international trade treaties. We train terrorists in Central Asian madrassas and send them to invade countries we want to slice and dice (a tried and true method for three decades), a whole city is locked down (and a “liberal” one at that) to catch two people we think committed a terrible crime, but whom we are also told are “international terrorists”, while the authorities try to exterminate them (or at least riddle them with bullets) so they won’t spill all the beans, people are “stopped and frisked” without cause in one of the great cities in the world (sounds like the NYPD prize is a Purina dog biscuit), WMD is conflated for another round of NATO gang rape (e.g., Syria and Iran), etc. It’s a new paradigm of governance that would give even Stalin wet dreams, and it’s our money that is paying for it. Trouble is, after we’ve paid, we’re left with a fraction of what we had before, and, of course, with the mess we were forced to paid for. In the end there are a very few winners and lots of losers.

    One hopes the gorillas don’t manhandle the Guarnerius and make it a shadow of its former self- though we are learning that great music-making knows few instrumental limits- e.g., that an erhu played by a master can give a fine violin or viola a run for their money. (Any bass baritone- sic., cello- erhus anywhere?)

  5. Rosalind says:

    OK, I can understand a mix-up/oversight or whatever in documentation, whether the fault lies with the musician or the customs authorities, lay that aside for the moment.

    But WHY do they need to actually confiscate the instrument itself? Surely if there is some issue which has to be clarified, it should be more than enough to take photocopies of all relevant documents/passport/proof of address, even a digital photo of the instrument in question and then allow the musician to enter the country with his instrument on the understanding that the required detail is submitted by a certain date.

    To be honest, if I’d been in Mr Merlin’s shoes, I’d have quite happily temporarily surrendered my passport as ‘security’ provided I could leave with that incredibly precious instrument.

  6. It seems that one of the lessons from all the European customs tsuris in recent months is that professional musicians traveling with instruments should always use the red channel.

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