Flat note for violinists as German customs seize instruments

October 10, 2012


Musicians who carry valuable instruments when they travel need to beware of customs, as two violinists recently discovered in Germany.

Customs seized their violins, citing the need to declare them and demanding hefty import duties, before they were eventually returned.

Music industry officials say customs officers used to give special treatment to musicians’ instruments, but no longer.

On Sept. 28, German violinist Yuki Manuela Janke, concertmaster at the Staatskapelle Dresden, was carrying a 1736 Stradivarius when she flew in to Frankfurt Airport, and customs officers seized it.

The violin was owned by the Nippon Music Foundation and was on loan to Janke for use in her work. The foundation said Janke, 26, had documents proving its origin, including a loan certificate, but officers argued there was still a possibility of her selling the instrument while in the European Union.

Customs demanded 1.18 million euros (120 million yen, or $1.5 million) in a 19-percent import duty, on a violin estimated to be worth 600 million yen.

The foundation said Oct. 9 the instrument has been returned without tax payments having to be made. Janke said she was relieved, adding that she wants to concentrate on performances.

On Aug. 16 at the same airport, customs officers seized a 1741 Guarnerius from Japanese violinist Yuzuko Horigome, who is based in Brussels.

The fiddler, who performs around the world, said she had been traveling through Frankfurt Airport for more than 20 years and officers had never before taken issue with her violin.

Horigome, 54, resolved suspicions of smuggling when she submitted documents relating to the instrument's provenance, showing that its purchase was legitimate and that she was its owner.

Nevertheless, officers demanded that she pay 190,000 euros in import duty, on a violin estimated to be worth 100 million yen.

The customs service told The Asahi Shimbun that any item worth 430 euros or more must be declared when it is brought into the EU.

The violin remained impounded for several weeks, and the case acquired publicity. Horigome submitted further documents; 5,400 people signed a petition; and Japan's Foreign Ministry got involved.

Customs released the violin in late September, and lifted the payment demand.

"I make doubly sure, but I become anxious whenever I return to Germany," said Japanese cellist Sadao Harada, who is based there. "I feel that the customs service became more aggressive and demanding particularly after the EU was formed."

He always carries his instrument's certificates, but on two occasions German customs opened the case and asked how much he had paid for the cello.

It could happen at any airport. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, a popular violinist born in Moldova, had her Guarnerius confiscated at Zurich Airport in 2010.

But musicians say Frankfurt is the one that is least in tune, and is to be avoided.

One German composer has a theory for what lies behind the string of seizures. Germans are sticklers for principles and rules, the composer explained, and once they have insisted on something, they never relent.

When orchestras go abroad on tour, they obtain customs clearance certificates from a government-designated organization. But many soloists shuttle regularly between countries and are unable to apply for certificates every time they cross a border.

Kazuko Shiomi, president of the Nippon Music Foundation, said one solution would be to introduce a passport for musical instruments.

"To guarantee smooth flow of musicians, governments must work together to introduce as soon as possible a passport based on international standards," Shiomi said.

(This article was written by Ken Matsui in Berlin and Junko Yoshida.)

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Yuki Manuela Janke (Photo by Shigeto Imura)

Yuki Manuela Janke (Photo by Shigeto Imura)

  • Yuki Manuela Janke (Photo by Shigeto Imura)
  • Yuzuko Horigome

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