Violin theft and security

A long-time friend and renowned Scottish fiddle maestro Alasdair Fraser recently had his violin and several bows stolen from his rental car while on tour in Portland Oregon. He immediately instigated a massive social media campaign, and within a couple of weeks he received a message from a Portland violin shop to say they had managed to recover the items.

Sadly, there are many such stories of stolen violins and bows and very few have such a speedy resolution. This set us thinking about the problem of violin theft, how best to protect yourself from theft, and what to do if you are unfortunate enough to have items stolen.

Violins are valuable, portable, and are carried about in public places. Thieves may see violins as an easy target, but they are also likely to underestimate the difficulty in selling them on. They are highly identifiable, and it’s very hard for criminals to realise the full value of a stolen violin or bow without having a certificate for it. There are numerous ways of logging a theft (for example the Interpol stolen works of art database) so a thief can quickly find him/herself in a sticky place. And the more visible and well documented your violin or bow, the harder it is to sell on.

How to steal a violin

The short answer is – don’t! I would say that of course, but violins are notoriously hard for criminals to sell and thefts of instruments attract a lot of attention.

  • Violins vary hugely in value – many are student instruments worth only a few hundred pounds while the multi-million pound Stradivarius violins are so rare and individual that they all have names and are instantly recognised by experts. Confusingly (for thieves) cheap instruments generally have old-looking ‘Stradivarius’ labels in them because that was the marketing ploy at the time they were made. Between the cheap fake Strads and the stratospherically expensive genuine ones there are professional violins which are valuable, but which are also highly documented and recognisable. Anyone offering them for sale would be expected to have certificates, and to know about the provenance and history of the violin – who the various previous owners have been, which luthier has been responsible for upkeep and so on.
  • The violin world is small and news about stolen instruments travels fast. Violin dealers all know each other and many of them have photographic memories for instruments. It is well-nigh impossible for a thief to realise even a fraction of the actual value of a valuable instrument, and they would expose themselves if they even tried to do so.
  • Meanwhile, the theft of violins is attention-grabbing and gets headline coverage in newspapers and social media. Musicians have a very special relationship with their instruments and if a violinist’s instrument is stolen it can be like losing a part of themselves. Even if a thief doesn’t care about that, the media does. A stolen violin will get hundreds of times more publicity than a stolen car of the same value. The theft of even modest instruments will feature in local newspapers and social media, more expensive ones hit national headlines, and every few years or so a story becomes an international sensation worthy of coverage in publications like Vanity Fair. The police are understandably responsive to such media interest and tend to pursue the theft of instruments more vigorously than the theft of generic items of similar value. They also enjoy the challenge of tracking down suspects in these cases because they know they will get positive media coverage for the police force if they are successful – photos of a musician joyfully re-united with their instrument are great clickbait.

Documentation

  • Most valuable violins and bows will be sold with one or more certificates. Usually only copies of certificates are provided in advance of a sale – once payment has cleared the originals are handed to the new owner. In this way the original certificates serve as a kind of proof of title. When buying an instrument or a bow, make sure you receive originals of any certificates. Never keep the original certificates in the same place as your instrument – and preferably don’t keep even photocopies with it. A valuable violin or bow without a certificate would be much more difficult for a criminal to sell without arousing suspicion.
  • When you buy a violin or bow you should always be given an invoice or receipt, but if you are buying from a violin dealer you should also ask for an insurance valuation. This should be on headed paper, it should be signed and dated, and it should state the market value of the instrument. Generally, insurance valuations are 10-15% higher than the retail value – this allows for inflation and takes into account the difficulty of replacing a treasured item at short notice.
  • Keep digital photos of your instrument as these can show much more detail than the small photos on a physical certificate. If you have bought something from a violin dealer ask them to supply you with photos. If you take photographs yourself make sure they are in good focus and take shots from the angles that we show on this page here. With violins which have a label, also take a photo of the label through the f-hole. Although a label is often misleading when thinking about the authenticity of a violin it is a useful identifying mark in the context of trying to track down a stolen instrument. For added protection you can ask a professional instrument photographer to create a full documentary record of your instrument or bow. Some violin shops offer this service for a modest fee, for example Stringers in London.
  • You do have instrument insurance, don’t you… But is the insured value of your instrument up to date?

Travelling with valuable violins and bows

  • Use a high-quality hard case with a combination lock – and always use the lock.
  • Put a bluetooth tracker in the case. We’ve tried GPS trackers and they are great for accurate location and recording the history of travel, but the batteries don’t last more than a day or so and the trackers have to be turned off for air travel. Bluetooth devices are small, they’re not a problem on airplanes and the batteries last for ages. Even though they don’t show movement history they give some useful information about location – particularly if inside a locked case so they can’t quickly be separated from the violin itself. We’ve found that Apple AirTags trackers work best, because they piggyback on the signal of all iPhones in the vicinity, but you need to have an iPhone, and the android-compatible Tiles are better than nothing.
  • Violins are often lost or left behind rather than stolen, and there are some honest people in the world – give them all the help you can by attaching a label with contact information to the outside of your case. This could also be useful in a scenario where an opportunistic thief abandons a stolen violin on realising that the case is locked or after getting an alert from his own iPhone telling him that a tracker (the one in the case) is moving with him. If you want to avoid displaying your phone number and email address on a label you could use a ‘Retreev‘ tag or sticker – these don’t reveal your details, but have a QR code that anyone can scan to send you a message via the Retreev website.
  • If you don’t want to attract attention in a particular situation and have a violin case which looks expensive, carry it inside a small holdall.
  • Buy a retractable cable lock like this. If you need to leave your violin unattended, for instance backstage or in a hotel, lock the instrument in the case and then use the retractable lock to secure the case to something large or immobile like a chair, desk or cupboard door handle. It’s not complete protection, but it’s an important layer of deterrence. Anyone might walk out of a hotel with a violin case, but a violin case attached to a table – not so discreet. We sometimes also use these locks on train journeys.
  • If you need to sleep on a train, don’t leave the violin or bow case in the overhead lockers – bring it down and make sure someone would have to disturb you to get at it. Perhaps even use a leash or scarf to tie the case to your wrist. Thefts in public places are opportunistic – don’t make it easy!
  • Don’t leave your instrument in a car if you can possibly avoid it. Most insurance companies don’t cover theft from unattended vehicles and there is also the risk of varnish melting if the car gets hot. If you absolutely have to leave an instrument in a car, at least make sure the violin case is not visible…
  • If you have to leave a violin in a hotel room, leave a ‘Do Not Disturb’ notice on the door and make sure the door is genuinely locked!
  • However much you trust your colleagues, be careful with your violin backstage – one of the most notorious violin thefts happened when a con-man gained access to the backstage area of Carnegie Hall and stole the ‘Huberman’ Strad from a dressing room.
  • Keep your case locked when leaving it backstage to reduce the possibility of accidental or deliberate ‘bow swaps’. You’d notice immediately if it was a different violin in your case, but a bow?

Violin security at home

  • Key control – make sure that you know about everyone who has keys to your home. Change the locks if necessary and ideally use high security locks. Never lend keys to tradesmen (they could make copies and pass them on to someone else in the pub for a consideration).
  • Lock all doors and windows properly at night and whenever you are out – Yale locks can be opened in seconds with the right equipment.
  • Security review – ask a locksmith to check all your door and window locks and make recommendations about upgrades.
  • Consider keeping your instrument in a safe place within your house – put a lock on the door to the room where it is usually kept or store it in a locked cupboard – at least when you are away from home. Keep it in a locked case with a bluetooth tracker inside.
  • Keep any certificates in secure place separate from your instruments. You might even like to give certificates to a lawyer for safekeeping or put them in a safe deposit box.
  • Consider installing an alarm system. It’s not foolproof – we’ve all witnessed alarms going off and being ignored, but it’s a useful layer of deterrence. If your home is burgled the intruders may at least be distracted by the noise and take only the things which are most accessible.
  • Consider installing video-camera doorbells and security lights with video recording. We use the Ring system which is motion-activated and wireless. You could even set up a camera indoors if you have a study or music room where your instruments are kept. The cameras are easy to move about or turn off when you don’t need them, but they are tamper-proof in that any video they record is immediately uploaded to the cloud. It’s another a layer of deterrence, and we also find it useful to be able to check remotely to see if anyone has triggered the cameras.
  • There’s the old ‘putting lights on a timer to come on in the evening’ trick, but you may be able to think of other ways to make your home look occupied and busy – for instance, an elderly collector we met recently leaves a pram in the porch to make it look as if he has visitors.
  • Think about how to protect yourself from people who might be specifically targeting your instrument, particularly if they have access to the property. We know of a cello which was stolen from a musician’s flat and held hostage by an aggrieved landlord who had a set of keys. In fact, we heard about this from the landlord himself, at a posh dinner party in Edinburgh, and Martin almost had to be restrained from punching the guy! It’s not pleasant to think about, but an ex-partner or a flatmate with a grudge might be able to take an instrument without having to use force to break in. If someone steals something from your home without breaking and entering, the situation with the police and your insurance company is complicated.

What to do if your violin is stolen

  • Move fast – get as much information about the circumstances of the theft as soon as you can. Focus on the people around you first – looking for potential witnesses as well as culprits. If there is a Bluetooth tracker in the stolen case start taking screenshots of the location shown on the app so that you have a record of its movements. This could help the police to find relevant CCTV footage later.
  • Report the theft to the police immediately. Bear in mind that if you don’t take the trouble to register the instrument as stolen it could make establishing ownership more difficult at a later stage. Give them photos – of the violin, of its label, of the case it was in – and if a bow was also stolen make sure that they have good photos of that as well. It’s best not to circulate photos of certificates, or if you do, try to watermark them so that they can’t be used nefariously. If the theft was from your home and you have video-camera footage, download it and share it with the police.
  • Contact your insurance company and send them photos.
  • Register the instrument as stolen in the following places: Tarisio, Maestronet, Musical Chairs – and other resources like facebook groups local to the area where the theft occurred. Photos are essential here too, and make sure that they are large enough to show details of varnish wear and other identifying features. If possible include a photo of both the outside of your violin case and a photo of it open. It’s amazing how well people remember these details.
  • When valuable instruments are stolen the police should be able to register the item with Interpol so that it appears in their international stolen works of art database. The database can be viewed through this Art-ID app and it’s what we use as our primary due diligence check before offering anything for sale. We also look at other online resources but as these are unregulated they can include things which have since been recovered, or which were never actually stolen (it happens), or have photos which are completely inadequate. There is also a privately-run Art Loss Register for stolen art, antiquities and collectables but it is really only relevant for million-dollar items and should be used only with caution.

Lost…

The theft of Min-Jin Kym’s Stradivarius hit the headlines in 2010. Her violin case was lifted by opportunistic thieves at Euston station’s Pret a Manger. Three people were identified via CCTV, were prosecuted and pled guilty to stealing the violin; two were sentenced by youth courts while the ringleader, who had tried to sell the £1.2 million instrument for £100 in an internet cafe, was jailed for four and a half years.

The culprits had passed on the instrument by the time they were caught and although an extensive police operation recovered the violin three years later Min Kym herself had lost it forever. When you claim on insurance part of the deal is that if an item is recovered it belongs to the insurers. You’d generally get an option to buy it back from them, but if you’ve already spent the insurance money, or if the instrument has appreciated in value since it was stolen, you may not be able to pay the price. Here is the Strad review of Min Kym’s book about her experience.

Found!

Alasdair Fraser’s social media campaign was successful and he got his instruments back. This one of the (many) posts he circulated on facebook:
Stolen violin photos

Article by Anna Ashmole, January 2024

Should I Consider Buying a Violin at Auction?

Disclaimer: please note that this article was written in 2016, before the shift to online auctions

Violin Auctions: A Beginner’s Guide
If you are thinking about buying an instrument by going to violin auctions it’s probably because you hope to pay less than if you went to a violin shop or an online violin dealer. Auction estimates are much lower than shop prices for the same maker and the auction houses suggest that there are bargains to be had. Whether you are a professional player or a student, and whatever your budget, if you are thinking of buying a violin at auction and want to avoid expensive mistakes this guide is for you.

There’s so much choice at violin auctions – I’m bound to find something I like the sound of…
notice to keep noise down when trying a violin at auctionIt’s bit like speed-dating. There’s plenty of choice, but in some ways it’s the worst possible situation in which to make an important decision. Our hot tip is to take your own bow with you to try out the violins at the viewing day, but even an experienced dealer has little hope of getting a complete understanding of how a violin sounds when trying it at an auction viewing. If you’ve never heard the soundscape of a violin auction it’s quite an experience. Here is a soundclip of recent violin auction viewing. It’s a world away from choosing a violin from a dealer and having it on trial for a fortnight to treat as your own. If you’re looking for a long-term relationship with a violin, then buying at auction is a bit like proposing to someone on the basis of their online profile and a five-minute meeting in a busy coffee-shop. It’s not impossible to get it right but it’s a long shot…

When is a violin not a violin?
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet…? There are no violin auction houses who currently offer legally binding guarantees of attribution. If a violin is sold with a recent certificate from an internationally respected ‘big name’ then that’s not an issue, but in all other cases you need to know for sure who made the instrument. If you discover the day after the auction that your bargain violin is mis-attributed, you can’t take it back (unless it’s a deliberate fake and you can get an internationally respected expert to put this in writing). When you think about it, this accounts for some of the low prices from past sales – an auction house will record an item as sold and use the catalogue description of it, even if the dealers in the room knew it was fake, didn’t bid, and let it go to a naive bidder at a low price. Then miraculously there’s an online record of a bargain price for a Montagnana to encourage other inexperienced buyers to think about buying a violin at auction. And there’s someone out there who’s going to be very disappointed in their ‘investment’ when the time comes to find a buyer for what they thought was a valuable instrument.

Should I take a dental mirror and an endoscopy torch to the auction?
These are tools of the trade – along with Hacklinger gauges, precision scales,
magnifying glasses, UV torches and a hotline to a respected dendrochronolgy expert. Tools for Violin Auctions

The condition reports offered by the auction houses are not legally binding and are often partial. Many instruments at auction have condition issues which require an expert eye to identify. The guy you see giving a violin a thorough medical examination may not be after the same ‘bargain’ as you, but he’s working hard to avoid spending money on something which has an undeclared condition issue. An undetected post crack in the table could reduce a violin’s resale value by 15-20%, an invisible post crack in the back more like 50%. Of course, once a violin is sold, the auction house can make the sale price public without saying anything about the violin’s condition. Once again, auction prices look cheap online – but that cheap violin someone bought at the last auction could have cost more to get into good playing condition than it did to buy.

Are there any hidden costs of buying a violin at auction?
The sale prices used by auctions are the hammer price. On top of that the purchaser has to pay a hidden cost – the buyer’s premium, which is typically 20%, plus tax. So if you bid £10,000 in a UK auction you will have to actually pay £12,400 (£10,000 plus £2,000 premium plus £400 VAT). If the violin you are bidding on is imported from outside the EU you may have to pay VAT on the instrument as well as on the premium. If you are not VAT registered you can’t claim that back, so check the small print. There are similar issues in other countries.

The recorded sale price for violins routinely don’t include taxes. And if you are discussing prices with someone, make sure you know whether they’re including the buyer’s premium or whether they’re just talking about the hammer price. It’s easy to forget this when comparing online auction prices with violins being sold by shops or dealers. When you see a price in a shop or on a website that is the maximum you’d pay for the instrument – there are no hidden extras.

If you live somewhere like London or New York and can just drop by on an auction you’ve got an advantage, but anyone else should factor in the cost of travel and accommodation – remembering that the viewing will be a day or so before the auction itself. You could go to the viewing and then bid from home online – but some auction houses charge 3% extra for that service.

If I change my mind I can always put an instrument back into the next violin auction – right?
Sure. But there’s another hidden cost called – you guessed it – the sellers premium. Generally around 15%. And the violin you bought will now have an online sale record, so anyone researching it will know how much you paid – and will be wondering why you didn’t like it. So don’t expect to get your money back any time soon. There are plenty of violins rotating through the auctions like this. As a buyer, you might want to check online to find out if the violin you’ve just fallen in love with has a past…

So why do dealers go to violin auctions?
Actually, a lot of violin dealers love the thrill of the chase. It can be addictive, and even experienced dealers have been known to make a fool of themselves bidding over the odds for something in the heat of the moment.

Often dealers are looking for violins which have been wrongly attributed to lesser makers. They are hoping that their ‘eye’ is better than that of the auction house experts. If a dealer has a hunch that something is better than its catalogue description (or the label) they will try to buy the violin, then research who the real maker might be. With a certificate from an expert with specialist knowledge of the maker, a violin is worth more. But finding the right person to certify a violin means developing contacts, a surprising amount of international travel, and paying as much as 15% of the violin’s worth for the certificate.

Another dealer strategy is to buy something which is cheap because it needs serious restoration. If a violin shop employs staff to repair customer instruments it’s useful to have something they can work on in quiet periods. In a few years’ time the bargain auction violin will have been carefully restored and be worth considerably more than it cost at auction. It might not have been a viable purchase for anyone else, but it works just fine if the salary of the shop’s luthiers is covered by their day to day work.

Generally though, dealers are just spreading their risk – if they buy ten instruments at a sale and discover afterwards that one has a hidden bassbar crack and another is not by the maker it was attributed to, that loss that can be spread over the other purchases. A few dealers have developed a skill for judging the tonal potential of violins even if they are poorly set up. Someone like this might go to an auction, play 200 violins, find perhaps 10 which are of interest and be happy to buy four of them. It’s a talent.

Violin Auctions

Why do violin auctions keep some instruments back for private sale?
Umm… those are the violins that they have full confidence in. Think about it. And then maybe take a look at the auction terms and conditions.

I still want to try my luck at a violin auction – what should I do?
OK, fair enough. There’s a buzz around violin auctions and, although the odds are against it, you might just get a bargain… If you like the thrill of a casino and don’t mind making a few expensive mistakes, go for it!

Get hold of the catalogues in advance and make a shortlist of instruments you are interested in. Ask for condition reports for all of them and do some research to see how the violins you are looking at compare with the rest of the maker’s output (even if something is genuine, it may be a less valuable model or from a low point in the maker’s career). Check if any of the violins have failed to sell at previous auctions.

Before the viewing day think about what you want from a new instrument. When you are playing violins at the viewing try to compare their sound in your mind with the sound of your current violin. Narrow down your shortlist. But don’t show too much interest in something you really like as it will draw other people’s attention to it. Your worst enemy is someone like yourself, looking to upgrade their own violin, as they will tend to bid higher than anyone else. Experienced auction-goers keep a poker-face when trying out instruments, so if you see someone play a violin for 30 seconds before putting it down they could be thinking that it’s complete junk, or that it’s the best in the sale.

After the viewing you need to think about what you are prepared to pay. If you look at past auction prices as a guide, be aware that the online sale price of a violin sold in a previous auction doesn’t mean that you could have bought it for that price. You don’t know what the buyer’s limit was, and if you had been in the bidding they might have gone up far higher before dropping out. Prices depend on who is bidding on the day.

Your aim should be to decide on your maximum price and try to stick to it. If you are interested in more than one instrument think about which comes first in the auction. If the violin you like best comes up first, you’re in luck. If it’s the other way around you have to decide how much to bid on the second-best one that comes up earlier in the auction. Think about how you’d feel if you succeeded in getting it, but then had to watch the one you really wanted sell cheap to someone else after you’d spent your money. If that thought hurts, maybe you shouldn’t bid on the earlier one at all. On the other hand, having put all the effort into coming to the auction, you’ll want to have something to show for it…

When the time comes to bid, try to see if there are dealers bidding against you, watch when they stop, and don’t go much higher – they know the value better than you do. Auctioneers are happiest when two or more naive buyers are bidding against each other – they may each rely on the other to confirm their sense of how much the violin is worth. One of them will walk away having committed to pay an inflated price for something just because the two of them kept bidding against each other after the experts dropped out.

There’s a myth that violin auctions set a ‘fair market price’ for instruments but the amount a violin will fetch at auction depends on how it’s described, what estimate is put on it and on who happens to be interested at the time – on a quiet day prices will be lower. In fact, prices can be very surprising – in both directions – and it’s often hard to spot the reasons. Try not to bid more than you planned to. And don’t be tempted to buy something you hadn’t looked at properly just because it’s going cheap.

The language of auctions says you might win a violin. Just remember that you could also lose on the deal if you buy something which is not authentic, has condition issues, turns out not to sound as good as you’d hoped or reached an unrepeatable price because you and one other bidder went a bit soft in the head. Violin auctions can be fun, but for the majority of players, buying at a violin auction turns out to be a kind of drunken one-night stand. And when there’s a lot of money at stake, it’s good to know who you’re going to wake up with in the morning.

Bonus material – your cut-out-and-keep guide to violin auction terminology:
1. By Leandro Bisiach
Well none of us were there at the time but there’s broad agreement that this was made by Bisiach or by someone in his workshop, or was ordered by Bisiach from Nonno down the road … or maybe Nonno’s brother. But Bisiach definitely made it or had it made and the label is legit.
2. ASCRIBED TO Leandro Bisiach
Not by Bisiach, but it has a certificate from Jacques Francais from 1995 so if you’re unscrupulous you should be able to sell it as a Bisiach.
3. ATTRIBUTED TO Leandro Bisiach
The owner refuses to believe this isn’t a Bisiach because they paid a lot of money for it in the 1930s. They would only consign it if we also agreed that it might be a Bisiach and was worth more than it really is, so we’ve put a punchy estimate on it … but it ain’t a Bisiach
4. WORKSHOP OF Leandro Bisiach
Sort of like number 1 but we’re not 100% sure. Might have been made by Nonno’s brother – definitely that sort of thing.
5. CIRCLE OF Leandro Bisiach
This is probably a Linguine. You know, Linguine was always jealous of Bisiach. I reckon he half-inched some of that nice quilted maple and a label or two and knocked this one up out of sheer spite. It does look incredibly like a Bisiach except it doesn’t have any f-holes.
6. FOLLOWER OF Leandro Bisiach; AND SCHOOL OF Leandro Bisiach
It’s a fake. You can kid yourself that it’s a Sgarabotto but we did a dendro and it can’t be.
7. LABELLED OR STAMPED OR INSCRIBED Leandro Bisiach
Get real, this is the violin trade ….
Violin labels

Article by Anna Ashmole, June 2016

The evolution of our website design, 2008 to 2023

I (Anna) have managed our website ever since 2010, when I called time on a Java/Flash website which a friend had built for Martin a couple of years earlier. It looked okay, but didn’t function well at all – it was glitchy, the images were hellishly slow to load and, worst of all, we were reliant on the developer to do any updates. This is what the first Martin Swan Violins website looked like (time moves faster online, so it’s bit like looking at a fashion photo from the 1970s…).

MSV website circa 2007

I’m not a coder, but I first got involved in website development in the mid-1990s and I understand the underlying principles of web design. I worked closely with the developer who designed the second iteration of our website, and a big priority was to set it up so that I could do the routine updates such as listing new instruments for sale. This was early days for user-friendly content management systems and although it was a WordPress site some of my supposedly ‘routine’ updates involved code-based editing in a scary Adobe program called Dreamweaver.

We worked hard on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation); trying to integrate key words for the benefit of search engines without disrupting the flow of our descriptions of instruments and bows. I also brought additional traffic to the website by doing pay-per-click advertising – mainly with Google and Facebook. The paid advertising helped to boost the visibility of the website, but after a few years we found that we didn’t need it any more. By 2013 the website looked like this:

MSV website 2013

In 2014, we finally found a hosting company who were able to provide a fast, stable and secure hosting service. After years of trouble with three successive providers, this was a big advance. In 2015, we realised that a significant number of people were browsing our website on their phones, despite it not being designed for that, so we did a major upgrade behind the scenes to make the layout responsive. This was three years before Google implemented mobile-first indexing. We benefited when that change came and by 2019 the number of mobile visits to our website had overtaken desktop visits. Along the way, we refreshed the visual design of the site with new photography and Martin did a sketch of a swan which became our logo.

MSV website circa 2017

Despite the new photography, both the underlying structure and the visual layout of the website had started to feel dated. Also, we were vulnerable because we were relying on open-source software to run the galleries which displayed the instrument photographs, and the originator of this ‘Floatbox’ software had stopped providing support. We knew we needed to do a complete overhaul of the website but the developer I’d been working with had gone to Portugal to live in a yurt, and her home-made hydropower generator meant that her internet connection was unreliable. We needed to find someone else but wasted time going up a couple of seriously expensive blind alleys. One company even deemed that we had committed to a contract with them because we had given them a password to the back end of the website… We thought they’d asked for access so they could prepare a quote, but they threatened legal action if we didn’t pay a severance fee when we decided that we couldn’t work with them! Their offices were a dystopian nightmare of artificial lawns, beanbag workstations, and fantastically-themed meeting rooms. Our showdown with them took place in a Wild West cabin made out of film-set polystyrene, complete with saloon doors. Although they robbed us blind, we felt lucky that no-one drew a Colt 45.

The experience made us realise that we knew our customers far better than anyone else ever could, and one day in 2019 I just sat down and started planning the logical structure and the graphic design for the new website. We found a local developer who could implement my design. Jon works on his own from home – I imagine him working in genuine cabin overlooking a real lawn at the bottom of his garden. He has the technical skills we need, and also seems to be able to cope with my micro-management of all aspects of the website… He wrote a custom WordPress theme for us and completely overhauled the system for displaying the images of instruments and bows. In late 2019 we commissioned a photoshoot at Avenue House for the new website, roping in our daughter Maggie as a pointing model. Martin spent the first Covid lockdown re-photographing all of our stock, I manually re-did all of the WordPress ‘posts’ in the new format and we launched the current version of the website in May 2020.

MSV website responsive

Google Analytics has had a big update this year, and data is now being collected in a slightly different way, so I’ve been looking at some past statistics. The graph below is of our ‘organic’ traffic over the last ten years – ie visits from people who found the site by googling, rather than clicking on an advert, following a link on social media or using a saved tab on their computer. The base on the graph is zero, and the upwards trend is very gratifying – even Covid didn’t pull it back too much.

MSV organic website traffic

I’m still really focussed on UX (User Experience), and website security. Behind the scenes of the website that you see, I try to run a tight ship – Google ‘notices’ clean sites and that’s one way of climbing the rankings. I immediately fix any broken links, and the only time the website has gone down was in the heatwave of July 2022 when temperatures in London reached 40 degrees Celsius and the servers which host our website started melting.

Web sites are never ‘finished’, and in 2023 we introduced automatic machine learning translation for selected languages (we also provide pdf English translations of French certificates which are checked and approved by Martin). However, unlike many other websites, we never use AI to write text for us – Martin and I compose the English version of everything which appears on the site.

We welcome feedback! If you spot any problems with the website or have any suggestions of what we could do better, please email me: anna@martinswanviolins.com

Article by Anna Ashmole, December 2023