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V.com weekend vote: How should we handle violins that are worth $millions?

The Weekend Vote

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Published: February 1, 2014 at 7:15 AM [UTC]

The assault on Frank Almond and the theft of the violin he was carrying is something that should give us all great pause, but what should be done, as a result?

After Frank was shot with a taser gun and robbed of the "Lipinski" Strad while emerging from a gig last Monday night in Milwaukee, many people have called for the better-guarding of highly-valuable fine instruments. But what would this look like?

Amatis at the Smithsonian

Should we put all highly-valuable instruments in vaults or museum display cases, only to be removed when a guard unlocks them? Should violinists who regularly play Strads have armed guards with them at all times when they transport instruments that are worth millions? Should these instruments even be played?

Carried to the extreme, these measures seem pretty impractical and would be a real victory for the power of fear. A violinist who plays a fine instrument needs to practice it, bring it to rehearsal, travel with it and perform with it. They are some of the finest-sounding instruments on the planet, and this is part of their value. They benefit from being played. That said, it's already near-impossible for a player to buy such an instrument; imagine the financial burden of an arrangement that requires an armed guard?

Yet I shudder to think about what Frank Almond has endured, physically and emotionally. And I shudder to think of an object as historically significant, artistically pure, musically beautiful and financially valuable -- in the hands of a crook! If we only could have protected Frank, if we only could have protected the instrument!

I've transported valuable violins, and though I was nervous about doing so, I never worried that I would be assaulted and robbed of them. At most, I worried that someone might make off with them while I wasn't looking, so I endeavored to be looking at all times. I worried more about my level of alertness, about keeping from banging or dropping them, about getting through TSA without being told I'd have to check the violins as baggage, and about preventing anyone from trying to pile something heavy on top of them in the overhead compartment of the plane, once inside.

But the concept of being assaulted for one's instrument is just shocking. How should we handle the fact that the instrument of our trade has become a high-end art object and "financial instrument" for collectors?



From Jim Hastings
Posted on February 1, 2014 at 1:24 PM
I voted the first option: "Players should be able to play them, keep them, travel with them, etc."

Five thoughts:

1. From what I've read so far, here and elsewhere on the Net, this sounds like, quite possibly, an inside job. This leads me to …

2. Don't let ANYONE know you play or are carrying a valuable instrument -- except those who MUST know. Ditto, especially, if you own it. How true what the old sage said long ago: "If you would keep your secret from an enemy, don't tell it to a friend."

3. Don't carry the instrument in a shaped case.

4. Be very aware of your surroundings. Report any suspicious persons -- followers, stalkers, loiterers. Keep a cell phone on your person whenever and wherever you go out -- be sure it's well charged. And keep a good noisemaker on you at all times -- e.g., a police whistle.

5. Arm yourself. Criminals aren't dumb. If they even SUSPECT you might be armed and prepared to meet them with equal force, they're going to think twice before trying to pull off a heist. Potential victims have averted many a crime simply by brandishing a weapon, never firing it. I completed two related training courses for this: 1) semi-auto pistols; 2) pepper spray/mace. Our trainers emphasized that non-deadly force should be the first plan of attack whenever possible. The advantage of pepper spray, mace, tasers, is that their effects aren't irreversible. You temporarily disable the would-be attacker -- long enough to hold him or her for police.

From Mark Roberts
Posted on February 1, 2014 at 3:24 PM
Put a rfid in each, these can be the size of a hair and can contain a lot of information that can be collected from a couple of meters away...
From Allan Lewis
Posted on February 1, 2014 at 5:11 PM
How close are the copies by Martin Schleski and Sam Zygmudowitz? IMHO, I feel that accurate copies should be used for practice and minor engagements. The real ones, with body guard, for rehearsal for major engagements and recordings.

ABL

From Andrei Pricope
Posted on February 1, 2014 at 6:06 PM
Yes, $6mil is a lot of money for most of us (99.99%?)

For perspective, "The Card Players" by Cézanne sold for $270mil in 2011. It's also speculated that the "Mona Lisa" is worth around $770mil today. Insane? You bet!

I guess one could "thank" the top fine art and instrument dealers for relentlessly pushing prices up pretty much since the 70s, and out of the range of most mortals.

Let's hope this Strad doesn't get destroyed or damaged, whether it ends up back into lawful hands or the "baby" of an unscrupulous collector...

From 107.210.252.14
Posted on February 1, 2014 at 8:41 PM
It is said modern violins are (heresy alert!) nearly equal and indistinguishable in blind tests. The mystique of a rare Strad is in its rarity. Can a maestro perform as well with a modern instrument? Can s/he swap a twin without the audience knowing? Is part of the appeal to an audience the fact he's playing a Strad or would they tell the difference? I would be nervous knowing I was carrying six million bucks in my back pocket even if no one knew. I can't imagine hailing a cab, walking to my car or other mundane acts with a Strad under my arm.
Whatever my speculations, this act is an obscenity. The fear of theft diminishes us, our society and our creations.
I ache at the thought of what Frank Arnold is feeling this weekend. I pray the fiddle, a construction of wood and string, is recovered. I am glad he is physically unhurt.
From Chibiabos Winnegan
Posted on February 1, 2014 at 9:19 PM
Please, please, please please don't try to play gunman. Combat is as much of an art as music and deciding that your CCW permit and Frontsight attendance makes you into a SWAT guy is a recipe for disaster. You're also pretty likely to end up breaking the thing you're trying to protect. I'd also doubt that you're really prepared to watch someone else die...


Get executive protection. If you're going to walk around with an instrument worth several millions of dollars (the technical term being "shiny object" in certain circles) then you should assume someone else wants it, that they'll do bad things to you to get it and you should make sure that you have a warm body in between you and the bad guys if yours isn't up to the task. The instrument might be worth fending off people wielding sticks and guns to you but it's a pretty awful place to be.

There are people out there who devote their time and effort to being able to justify playing on a violin worth millions of dollars and there are people who put that same effort into fighting off the bad guys. It's probably going to be expensive (and maybe there should be a fund for some legal taskforce or another for that exact reason) but protecting an instrument like that is probably one of those times where it's worth it.

From Ray Randall
Posted on February 1, 2014 at 9:33 PM
One thing that might be useful is equip the case with a hidden GPS tracker. Won't keep it from being stolen, but might get the thieves and get the instrument back quickly.
From 173.195.183.26
Posted on February 1, 2014 at 9:54 PM
I was going to invest in a really good Mustafa case for my dad's very high quality and valuable Strad copy, over 150 years old. But now, I'm thinking twice about having a case that screams, "valuable instrument inside" - We players know these instruments need to be played else they 'lose their voice' - people that play these Strads are well known in the circles that will start making these crimes epidemic now that this crime has occurred. An armed guard is a good idea in my opinion. Protects the instrument as well as the violinist.
From Dale Forguson
Posted on February 1, 2014 at 11:48 PM
The probability of recovery is actually discouragingly low. As the value of rare instruments continues to climb insurance companies will be forced to put coverage stipulations in policies that will end player access to these instruments except in very controlled environments.

Would a museum or private collector allow a curator to take a Renoir in public places for display with no security provisions? Scarcity and speculation is putting the rarest and finest instruments in a similar position.

From Chibiabos Winnegan
Posted on February 2, 2014 at 12:29 AM
Some countries have special forces units who train for the specific eventuality of being deployed in order to protect treasured works of art. Just saying...
From Jim Hastings
Posted on February 2, 2014 at 5:09 AM
"Combat is as much of an art as music and deciding that your CCW permit and Frontsight attendance makes you into a SWAT guy is a recipe for disaster."

Similar to what our instructors told us during pistol training: "Best not to attempt deadly force with a firearm unless you've had combat training." Better to sideline the bad guy temporarily with non-deadly force so that you can get help or hold him for police.

From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on February 2, 2014 at 8:00 AM
I wonder, where does one draw the line?

Even a "mere" $100,000 violin could seem interesting to robbers, and there are thousands of them (and millions of robbers).

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 2, 2014 at 1:53 PM
I'm glad Frank Almond only lost his rare violin; thank goodness. He didn't lose life or limb in a gun battle.

Now, if he had been carrying a couple of grenades he might have been able to shake off the taser blast in time to hurl one of them and thereby blow up the minivan that was escaping with his instrument. That would have been the true Rambo thing to do.

Jim, did your training include learning to draw your weapon quickly while carrying your violin, music stand, music, etc.?

From 198.45.250.25
Posted on February 2, 2014 at 2:17 PM
In my opinion he should have been escorted by armed security. Would you tote 6 million in cash over your shoulder in a gym bag after announcing you had it? If I had this valuable of a violin, even a tenth of that I would take extreme precautions. It'll be interesting to see how this turns out. I'm wondering if he always transported it this way.
From Jim Hastings
Posted on February 3, 2014 at 12:01 AM
"Jim, did your training include learning to draw your weapon quickly while carrying your violin, music stand, music, etc.?"

Don't recall mention of these last three items but would have to check the written handouts we got during class to be sure -- and there were a lot of printed handouts. With proper training and practice, as long as one hand is free, a skilled handler can draw VERY fast.

FWIW, the time in class -- reviewing handouts, observing demos, learning applicable laws -- was far more than the time spent out on the range.

From Ray Randall
Posted on February 3, 2014 at 11:43 PM
Those of you with valuable instruments, just stop and think a bit. How can you afford to have security with you every minute outside your house? That means the bad guys and gals win. Easy to say, hard to do.

I almost bought the Soames Strad in 1968 for a "mere" $25,000. Today I could barely afford the insurance on it let alone a bodyguard every time I played a gig or rehearsal.

Those who say always travel with security....yeah, riiiight.

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 6, 2014 at 1:55 PM
Not to "blame the victim" but lugging a $5 million instrument to routine gigs in the city of Milwaukee does not sound prudent to me. For $50,000 you can have a truly fabulous modern violin. The big question is why his insurance company lets him get away with shuttling their "shiny object" all over town.

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