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Stradivarius burden: Life with a precious instrument

03 March 11 11:33
Violinist Nicola Benedetti
By Stephen Robb
BBC News

Three people have pleaded guilty to the theft of a £1.2m ($1.95m) Stradivarius violin, stolen while a top musician was distracted in a London sandwich shop. The case has highlighted how classical music performers travel the world with instruments worth thousands - and occasionally millions - simply hanging by their sides.

Few people would dream of carrying around cash to the value of even the bow that was also snatched last December - that alone was worth about £62,000 ($100,000) - never mind the 300-year-old violin itself.

Violinist Stephen Bryant, leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, says taxi drivers' first question when they hear what's in his case is about its value. They are always stunned by the answer.

Modest only in comparison to the seven-figure price tags of the likes of a Stradivarius, Bryant's violin is valued at close to £250,000 ($406,000).

"It's quite a hard thing for a lot of people to grasp that you can carry around something as valuable as that," he says.

What may also be hard to grasp is that most musicians' strategy for looking after these incredibly precious instruments comes down to little more than common sense.

"Make sure you personally accompany your instrument at all times," says an advice sheet from Lark Group, specialists in music instrument insurance. "Make sure that they are always in your line of sight."

"There's certainly no stipulation that you have got to have it tied to your body or anything like that," says Suzanne Beney, Lark's head of marketing. "If you are telling people to strap it to themselves, are you drawing more attention to it?"

Thefts of instruments are rare, she adds, and usually carried out by opportunists with no idea of the items' worth.

In fact, the most precious instruments have almost zero sell-on value. Each example of a Stradivarius - of which there are just a few hundred in the world - is almost impossible to re-sell because it is so recognisable.

"You would be lucky if you got a fiver down the market," says Ariane Todes, editor of The Strad magazine.

"For some of the really big stars, they do actually have instrument minders - they will literally have a minder who carries the violin, or who watches them as they carry it."

However, for most musicians it seems that maintaining eye contact, or better still physical contact, is how they keep their instrument safe when they are out. Bryant always rests a foot on his violin case whenever he has it with him in a pub or restaurant.

But musicians also speak of a heightened sense of awareness towards their instrument, based on an extraordinary bond beyond that with any ordinary possession.

"They are objects of devotion for musicians," says Bryant. "You are carrying about something that is very valuable but you are also carrying about something that you are emotionally attached to as well, because it's your way of expressing yourself."

He adds: "It's a bit like taking a child around. If you get on a train you make sure you hold the child's hand. If you have got an expensive violin, you just make sure you have got hold of it."

To lose the violin he has been playing for about 15 years would be traumatic, he says, and that trauma could last for years as he searched for a satisfactory replacement.

Lark Group offers cash settlements rather than replacements for lost or damaged instruments. "It means people can find a replacement at their own pace," says Ms Beney. "It takes a lot of time to find an instrument that they want to play and is right for them."

There are famous instances of performers being separated from instruments worth millions by simply leaving them behind somewhere. In 2008, violinist Philippe Quint gave a private performance to New York taxi drivers as thanks for the return of the 285-year-old Stradivarius which had been left in a cab.

Russian violin virtuoso Viktoria Mullova describes two scares that were the result of other people handling her violins.

A flight stewardess, without saying anything, once removed the instrument from the cabin compartment and placed it in the plane hold. "It could have been smashed," says Mullova. "I was very lucky that nothing happened to it. That was a Strad - it was a terrifying moment."

Another time, a friend who had offered to carry Mullova's violin then forgot to pick it up when he got out of a taxi - fortunately Mullova spotted the mistake before it was too late.

"That happened because he is not used to looking after a violin. I am used to it all the time," she says. "I would prefer not to give it to anyone else to carry. They are not used to remembering to have it all the time."

She admits that she is reluctant to entrust even her husband with her violin.

"It's always better if I have it myself."

A selection of your comments is published below.

I was enquiring about a very modest bow in a dealers one afternoon, when the owner broke into explaining how he had that morning been visited by a man with an expensive violin who asked for the instrument to be valued. Becoming suspicious, he asked the man to wait and phoned the police, who took the man and the violin away. When I asked what had made him suspicious, explained: 'The guy opened the violin case upside down, and NO violinist would ever do that'.

Calum Edwards, UK

I left my vintage Rickenbacker guitar on a bus once and it did a full round of the route before being handed back in at the bus station. I got it back a few hours later and have always been a LOT more careful about that since.

Sam, United Kingdom

My friend once left his bass guitar on a London train. A passenger spotted the bass, searched the case to find a bank receipt, rang the Brighton branch listed on the receipt telling them the account number and the bank then contacted my friend with the location of his bass guitar. The guy even got a train down to brighton to return it. Incredibly good fortune.

Leo, Brighton

I once had a violin worth roughly £20,000 "stripped": someone took the strings and the bow but left the more recognisable body behind. Thank god they left the most valuable part!

MW, Watford, Hertfordshire

The recently deceased blues/rock guitarist Gary Moore (RIP) reputedly used to take his precious "Peter Green"-Les Paul (1959 model?) electric guitar everywhere, including to the cinema with him, for fear of loosing it. Eventually the neck of the guitar was reputedly broken in a car accident but was later repaired.

Gary RIP, Ireland/London

When growing up in South Africa my uncle would, if he was going out, sometimes leave his Guarnerius violin (worth more than £1m) with my parents. I remember him saying with a big smile "if there is a fire save the fiddle and leave the kids"!

Ian, Herts

I have developed something of a kinesthetic awareness of my violin. This sense is not always reliable, however. I have had more than one close call with the fiddle I have played for the past 25 years. One heart-stopping incident occurred in a parking lot after a recent performance. I paused halfway across the lot to help a damsel in distress reinflate a flat tire. The fiddle sat in its case in an empty space not three feet from where I crouched over the tire. When the work was done, the driver backed out of her parking space in an unexpectedly sharp arc, clipping an end of the violin case! I was seeing stars as I gingerly opened the crushed box. To my amazement and relief, the violin and bow were unharmed, although threatened by splinters of the wooden box around the scroll of the violin.

Nils Jonsson, Houston, Texas, USA

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