Buying a violin overseas

July 20, 2018, 8:24 AM · I'm currently playing on an antique French violin. It's okay. But it's borrowed, so I'll have to return it someday, and I'm a bit shy about making any adjustments or repairs. So I'm kind of looking for a replacement, although there is no urgency. Every once in a while I'll try an instrument out.

I'll be on vacation in a month or two, and we'll eventually wind up in Paris. My wife wants to have an afternoon free for clothes shopping, so while she's doing that I thought I'd visit some of the luthiers on Rue de Rome. Odds are I'll just be window shopping, but on the off chance that I absolutely fall in love with one of their instruments, I was wondering about the practicality of bringing one home. Has anyone had any experience with this and can answer a few questions:

1) Is there anything I need to watch out for going through Customs when returning to the US? I presume I'll have to declare the violin.

2) Are luthiers in Paris good about the paperwork for the VAT refund?

3) Are violins in cases suitable for carry-on luggage?

4) Would it be easier to buy the violin and have the dealer complete the paperwork and ship the instrument?

5) Anything else I need to consider? Would I be better off hanging out in a cafe with a bottle of vin rouge while my wife is shopping?

Replies (22)

July 20, 2018, 9:38 AM · I vote for the afternoon in the cafe with a nice glass of red wine.

If you're planning to spend quite a bit of money, you need much more than an afternoon to make a good decision. Oftentimes instruments that sound wonderful in the shop turn out to have deficiencies that you only start to notice after "living" with the violin for a few days.

If you're not planning to spend much, you'll likely have at least as good a selection if not better at a large shop in the U.S.

Also, why spoil a good vacation by taking on the responsibility of carrying a violin around?

Edited: July 20, 2018, 10:29 AM · There are great bow makers you could visit in Paris as well - Emmanuel Carlier has his shop there, I think Georges Tepho now as well, Yannick Le Canu has an office there. Stephane Thomachot's workshop is in Provence but may also have a Paris address, worth checking into.
July 20, 2018, 10:41 AM · I agree with Mary Ellen on this.

At the same time, visiting the bow-makers may be fun, even if you have no intention to purchase anything.

July 20, 2018, 1:20 PM · I imagine it's more difficult to bring an old bow home from overseas (possible rare materials) than an old violin. So the problem with trying bows is I might actually want one of them.

As I said, buying anything is quite unlikely - I just need to kill a few hours without annoying my wife. But on the outside chance that I find a violin I fall in love with at a bargain price, I was wondering about the technicalities of bringing it home.

July 20, 2018, 2:20 PM · The makers have a fairly high chance of not having anything available to sell -- they work on commission. But you might enjoy a glimpse of the bow-commissioning and bow-making process.

You never want to buy a violin or bow without a trial. If you fall in love with something, you still shouldn't buy it.

July 20, 2018, 2:53 PM · A couple of those guys maybe not but Carlier invited us to visit and seems like a good guy, makes fantastic bows. (But I don't disagree Lydia, we ended up commissioning.)
July 20, 2018, 4:28 PM · Falling with love is easy, living with someone presents certain challenges.
You need at least 1, preferably 2 weeks to get to know a violin. In my case, a real sound picture emerges on the morning of the 5th day....
July 20, 2018, 7:19 PM · I have sipped vin rouge in Paris cafes and espresso too at various times between 25 and 50 years ago and I once also visited a violin shop just off the quay on the Left Bank but none on the Rue de Rome. I was treated rudely at the shop, probably because I was obviously not buying and I did not speak French. Regretfully I never got a chance to spend time on the Rue de Rome. Given the chance I would visit all the shops there.

I do not recall any of the cafes, but I remember that brief violin shop experience. If you visit them you will remember the experience.

One can drink wine anywhere!

July 20, 2018, 11:33 PM · So long as what you purchase is over 100 years old, you will be fine. If the instrument is less than 100 years old, you will have to pay a tariff. It might be 3-4%, but the duty officer will be the one who:1-determines the value of the item, regardless of what you have on a document and, 2-They will determine what the tariff amount is. French instruments made particular use of Brazillian Rosewood for fittings, so be aware that they might have a problem with that.
Getting the VAT back is your responsibility, not the seller, so make sure that you thoroughly understand the process and paperwork needed before you leave your home country.

Buying a violin on vacation is kinda like that vin rouge that you have at the sidewalk cafe. You love it, you purchase a bottle to bring back, and when you get home and rave about it and open it for your friends, it somehow doesn't seem as lovely as it was in the moment.

That said, there are plenty of shops near the Rue de Rome that will happily sell you a violin.

Edited: July 21, 2018, 3:18 AM · In Florence for a conference, I announced to a local friend that I was looking for a new violin and he replied "My neighbour makes violins - I'll introduce you". I figured the conference wouldn't miss me for a few hours and had a great time trying out violins within and outwith my budget, mostly made by the luthier's apprentices. The one that impressed me hugely was in fact newly made by a local amateur (this was the first time it had been set up) and I took it back to the hotel to audition more extensively. Next day the maker came himself to the shop and we conversed in Italo-English and gestures. It transpired he'd promised his next violin (this one) to a Japanese visitor, but my very loose personal connection got me preferential treatment. Fortuitously the wad of cash I'd been presented for my conference expenses covered half the price of the instrument.

I learned that Italian violin-makers often work "in the black" and prefer that their activities don't come to the notice of the tax man. Consequently my new violin was disguised with a false label (lightly glued) and having disposed of the ancient attention-attracting case I smuggled it through customs in my hand baggage. An authentification certificate followed by post. That was more than 20 years ago so I think I got away with it.

July 21, 2018, 4:53 AM · Interesting sales tactic on the part of the maker (although one can't rule out that it could have been true):

"This violin is already spoken for, but I'll make a special exception for you." ;-)

July 21, 2018, 6:07 AM · I only had to show him the wad!
July 21, 2018, 6:19 AM · It's even a bit more 'interesting' than "Only for you, I'll give a special price".
Edited: July 21, 2018, 7:51 AM · For a "special price" of 4 million lire (about £1800 in 1997) I don't think I was duped, and it became my virtual prosthesis for the next 20 years. Hope the Japanese visitor eventually got one too...
July 22, 2018, 1:39 AM · Why even declare it? Just walk it in. Tell them you took it with you from the US. Don't be such a boy scout.
July 22, 2018, 6:33 AM · I wonder which of the respondents are most likely to be audited next year? ;-)
July 22, 2018, 12:04 PM · I've never been sued. I don't use words like "respondents." :P
July 22, 2018, 5:07 PM · Being sued is not the same thing as being audited.

I was thinking the same thing as David B.

July 22, 2018, 7:03 PM · Typically, custom's check over what you bring into their country and what you are leaving with. However, if you came in with an inexpensive violin and left with a more expensive one, I doubt they would notice.
July 23, 2018, 8:38 AM · Buying a violin the last day of vacation isn't so bad. Carrying a cheap one around with us on the entire vacation until then would be quite a PITA, particularly since it's doubtful I'd even buy one while I'm there. And while the customs officials "probably wouldn't notice", if they do you lose Global Entry privileges for life, in addition to whatever fines they might decide to throw in.

I understand that VAT refund is the buyer's responsibility, but it's common enough for bigger purchases that many vendors have the paperwork available at the store and can even file it for you. I was wondering if anyone had personal experience of that happening with an instrument dealer.

Edited: July 29, 2018, 8:54 PM · "Respondents" have been sued before, regardless of whether they've been audited. Perhaps there are other activities we don't want to know about. ...or do we?

Have you ever traveled around to other countries? No one gives a crap what you bring in, as long as it's not excessive or highly questionable. They ask you whether you want to declare anything. Say no, they say, "have a nice trip."

Once, I declared too much. I checked too many boxes, just to be safe. They asked me what food stuffs/meats I was bringing in, I responded a turkey sandwich. They asked me why I was bringing in electronics and whether I was planning on selling it. I responded, oh it's just a laptop I was watching movies on in the plane....They realized they were wasting their time, and they let me in.

You can bring in a violin. Just don't bring in drugs.

July 30, 2018, 1:55 AM · I'm sure Tom is right although there must be a lot of variation between countries. In my case (not the violin case; I mean "circumstance") I was particularly concerned to protect the identity of the violin maker whose name might conceivably have reached the Italian taxman had I filled in the proper importation forms. I think he (the violin maker) was a bit paranoid! I shall take his secret to the grave with me.


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