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.
- 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.
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.
Alasdair Fraser’s social media campaign was successful and he got his instruments back. This one of the (many) posts he circulated on facebook:
Article by Anna Ashmole, January 2024