Using Technology to Fight Violin Loss and Theft

April 12, 2013, 10:48 AM · Introduction and Background

When violins and other small instruments are stolen, they easily fall into the wrong hands - such as pawnbrokers and second-hand shops -- traded for cash that supports the daily dose for addicts, etc.

I propose giving each valuable instrument a unique identity code by implantation of microchips with tracking possibility (such as GPS). This would help those who are in the serious violin trade, and it would interfere with "fiddle washing" in pawn shops and flea market shops. It would also shorten the time it takes to find out who is the owner, as that can be difficult to do strictly through the legal and judicial process.

Here is why musicians, insurance companies and all serious dealers should support this kind of idea: If an owner has implanted micro-chips and active sensors for GPS-tracking, as well as the certificates normally used for insurance purposes, this can greatly help the owner's position in the event that the instrument falls into the wrong hands.

Cross-border trading of instruments would be less common if instruments used by professionals had a simple but modern voluntary registration. If the idea spread, it would have its own momentum because everyone would benefit from having instruments registered together, with a smart phone app that would allow any "transfer operation" of the instrument to be tracked online.

Below, I have described several cases (including one which happened recently in Plovdiv, Bulgaria) that give support to this idea. If musicians, collectors and dealers could band together and support this concept, it could help deter the many unknown and unsafe dealings that occur with valuable instruments.

When You Have Lost Your Instrument

In Acoustic Guitar Owner's Manual, a book published 2002 which is now also available as a "google-book," Jack Pearson, a singer, writer, entertainer and professional musician from Minneapolis, gives his advice about what to do when a violin or other instrument is "kidnapped." Facebook was not founded at the time the book was written, but Jack saw the possibilities for that type of tool (pages 51-52).

Violins are sometimes stolen for direct cash money. Later, in the "washing-chain," surplus instruments are traded up to official Violin Auctions. The negative consequences are deeper than just monetary. To the musician, losing one's instrument can feel like a kind of handicap: the instrument was almost like part of one's own body. The musician longs deeply to have it back.

Also, there are the financial consequences for the owner, for insurance companies and also possibly for foundations who are invested in the instrument.

Two Real-Life Cases of Violin Theft

2010 Jens Gösta Johansson Violin

The theft of a 2010 violin by Jens Gösta Johansson from Sofia Högstadius in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, two months ago was followed by social media campaign on Facebook. The outcome (a happy one) was uncertain until that second when Sofia Högstadius at last had her violin in her hands. The Swedish media named it, The Treasure of Sofia.

"Followers" and active commentators posted notices in all available media, for example, in this English website for local news in Bulgaria. Many posts were made and shared from Sofia's Facebook site. The aim was to reach everyone with any type of connection to music and the music trade. A lot of background and pictures of the violin were shared and spread around the Internet.

The thieves therefore had big problems selling the violin, as it was "the violin" that had everyone's attention during that period. As a result, the thieves got cold feet. They called and asked for a reward, as "he" or possibly "they" just had "found" the violin. Negotiations ended in a complete return of the violin to Sofia.

This happy ending would never have come that easily without the social connections and communication preparedness provided by the social media such as Facebook!

1698 M. Goffriller Violin

Another not-yet-settled crime was the possible theft of a 1698 violin made by M. Goffriller on a train in London in 2008, in which the owner left his violin on the train, and five years later, the violin still cannot be found.

The case remains under investigation, with help from Facebook to some extent, but not to the extent that Facebook was used in the Bulgarian case. It's possible that, because the owners are of an older generation, they might have overlooked some possibilities for using modern social media.

They did put a notice in a website called Musical Chairs (you'll need to scroll down to find it).

The lost violin was not just a M. Goffriller – it was also a "treasure" for the English, as it was played by a young violinist for concerts for the British troops during World War II. Her name was Elizabeth Hunt, and she was mother to Robert Napier (the gentlemen who accidentally left the violin on the train) and his sisters and brothers.

Websites for Listing Lost and Stolen Violins

Besides Musical Chairs' free listings for stolen instruments, there are several other websites that have stolen instrument listings. Here two more of them: Maestronet.com, which will list a stolen instrument for US$50; and Cozio.com. A new site that focuses on the sale of violins is Amati.com.

No one has taken up the "whole thing": Who made the violin, where and when, repairs and services made, owners, who has used the instrument, certificates over time, etc. I think that the registries we have for medical patients or for cars and boats are also needed for valuable instruments, on a voluntary basis. In England, for instance, all dogs will have microchips implanted with an identity code, starting in the year 2016. A violin registration would need to include a feature that would keep track and be able to notify people when the instrument changes owners, or players, or luthiers. I hope such a registry can be included in the Amati.com initiative.

The New Smart Technology Tools

Not everyone is familiar with ongoing technical developments -- such as tracking, online-registries with apps, identity with microchips; the "smart water spot" etc. -- so below are some links to help people understand this technology and how it can be used to protect valuable instruments from theft and long-term loss:

Here is a success story from New York city, showing how Hahn-Bin was able to find his lost $493,000 Pressenda violin with the help of GPS tracking, after having left it in a cab.

Making It a Reality

I hope that these ideas can become a reality, that insurance companies, violin communities (such as Violinist.com), banks, Foundations for Instruments Used By Talent Young Musicians, professional luthiers and professional musicians can find a way to pool resources and come up with a modern system that we can all use to track instruments and keep them from theft, loss and harm, for the benefit of us all.

Bertil Ottertun
Hindås, Sweden

Replies

April 13, 2013 at 04:47 PM · Thank you so much for sharing these very good ideas, Bertil. It seems to me that for a registry and tracking system to be effective, it would need to be something that is not designed for profit, but is designed for public good and available either for free or for a very small fee so that the one registry is widely used by all. That way, every dealer and luthier (maybe even every pawn shop) could easily check their inventory, every player could track his or her own instrument, every police department could easily jump onto the system for investigations, etc. How would it be funded, developed, etc.? That's the big question.

April 13, 2013 at 06:07 PM · Dear Lauire, regarding “How would it be funded, developed, etc.? That's the big question.”

Some coincidences I want to share with you.

I am for the time being spending time in Umeå Sweden where Sofia Högstadius works and live.

Jens Jösta Johansson is my dear friend in Cremona Italy.

Most importantly, there is a solution to Bertil’s problem.

There will come a handy passport that can locate instruments and give informations to customs duty globally. I am involved in this process and will keep you updated.

April 13, 2013 at 07:18 PM · With data on over 15,000 registered instruments, including certifications, citations to published descriptions, photos and provenance, Cozio.com would seem to have a good beginning toward the kind of system contemplated here. They've been taken on by Tarisio, and are planning many changes.

April 15, 2013 at 03:26 PM · Interesting post! I've thought a lot about high-tech instrument protection, although I still haven't implemented most of it...

We're heading into an era of wearable sensor tech. For instance, the new Samsung Galaxy SIII has temperature and humidity sensors in addition to GPS tracking and accelerometers. As these things become cheaper, case integration is real option.

The implications of having such a device in your case might be the tracking of case location, temp/humidity logging, and notification of any sudden shocks to the case.

You could even have it alert you on another device if any of these things were out of range -- a geofence for theft prevention, extreme temp notification, sudden humidity change, etc.

Neat stuff!

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