Monday, August 20, 2012

Instruments of Music Held Ransom

Most performers have a close relationship with their instruments. At the highest concert level, a musical instrument can cost as much as a house--or more! My concert guitar is not nearly that valuable, but it is a very fine and unique instrument that I have played for twenty-nine years. It has outlasted one marriage and several girlfriends. Many performers do a great deal of traveling with their instruments and it just seems to get harder every year. It's not the airlines (though they can cause problems as well) so much as the ever-growing complexity and sheer nastiness of the customs, tax and immigration rules. Here is the latest case reported at this link:
Yuzuko Horigome was flying home from Tokyo to Brussels with a stopover at Frankfurt, when German customs seized her Guarnerius violin, worth in the region of one million Euro. They demanded that she pay a fine of 190,000 Euros for the instrument’s release, saying that it had not been taxed properly in the EU. Yuzuko had to fly on without her instrument.
The comments are also worth reading as they offer a wide spectrum of views, several from other traveling soloists. Quite a few people commented that if you don't travel with the "proper documentation" for your instrument then you are just asking for this kind of trouble--especially in the Netherlands for some reason, but also Germany and even the UK. Now I have no idea what the "proper documentation" for my guitar might be, all I know is that I have no papers and never had. Probably nothing would happen if I traveled to Europe with it, but it is hard to know. I have nothing proving I bought it anywhere and it is anyone's guess what it is worth. But I am pretty sure that it is mine and cannot, no matter what kind of tax regime Europe has these days, see how any official has the right to confiscate it.

I'm afraid that stories like this make me even more of a libertarian than I am already. I'm sure that the intricate bureaucracies of Europe and the US have all sorts of reasons for the regulations, taxes and laws that they endlessly promulgate. I'm also pretty sure that the primary beneficiaries of these rules are the bureaucrats themselves. I don't think they have any right to my guitar or a piece of it or Yuzuko Horigome's violin or a piece of it. Though perhaps it is different for her as she is resident in Brussels. But I'm not and under no circumstances would I take the risk of letting state officials get hold of my guitar. Is not their sheer arrogance almost unbelievable?

Here are Yuzuko Horigome and Martha Argerich playing the first movement of the Schumann A minor violin sonata:

UPDATE: Things are even worse for Yuzuko Horigome as a new report indicates that, with fines, the total cost of re-claiming her violin could amount to 380,000 euros or $475,000 USD. There might be some light at the end of the tunnel as this news story reports that
A spokesman for the German authorities has suggested that the violin might be returned if it is regarded as necessary for her job, the Yomiuri said.
 I'm afraid that this does not make me inclined to travel anywhere near Germany as I don't want to rely on the arbitrary caprice of customs officers who "might" allow me to keep my guitar.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Now this story is exactly the kind of experience I had on more than one occasion, even though my guitar is not from the 17th century. It is however, just as valuable to me, my companion for twenty-nine years, built by a wonderful luthier from Vancouver who has long since passed away, making it truly an irreplaceable instrument.

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