Saturday, 5 March 2011

Watching the Strad

It may seem strange to you and me, but musicians casually carry around instruments worth hundreds of thousands of pounds as if they were of no more value than a paperback.

They're so used to owning them, and so used to keeping sight of them at all times, that they seldom get stolen. Musicians watch their instruments as carefully as a parent watches a child.

The recent theft of a £1.2 million Stradivarius violin from a London sandwich shop is most unusual.

Of course one reason Strads are unlikely to be stolen is the difficulty of reselling them. They're so recognisable (there are only a few hundred in the world) that dealers would be instantly suspicious. You'd be lucky to flog it at the local market for a fiver.

Violinist Stephen Bryant's violin* is worth about £250,000, but his only precaution against losing it is to watch it like a hawk. It's so precious to him that such habitual vigilance is second nature.

Some musicians do have an instrument minder - someone who either carries the instrument or makes sure the musician is looking after it. But many musicians would only trust their personal attachment to something that is so important to them - something crucial to their self-identity.

In 2008, violinist Philippe Quint was so grateful for the return of a 285-year-old Stradivarius left in a New York taxi that he treated New York cabbies to a special private performance.

It's surprising that musical instruments aren't kidnapped and held to ransom. If they're so precious to the musicians, presumably they'd be prepared to pay quite a lot to get them back. Maybe they do, but it's all kept very quiet. Or should I say, molto molto pianissimo.

* Leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Pic: Min-Jin Kym, whose £1.2 million Stradivarius was stolen, and is still missing.

24 comments:

kylie said...

talking of strads, i was reading somewhere just this week that in blind testing newer violins often produce a better sound but instrument makers can't get musicians to recognise the value in good modern craftsmanship.
also, in contrast with the usual philosophy of "you get what you pay for" a musician who pays too much for an instrument doesnt know what they are getting and buy on snob value alone.

getting back to your post though, i cant imagine that i could ever trust myself to look after anything so valuable

Grannymar said...

Well, since I have been known to leave umbrellas behind me, I would hate the responsibility of looking after a strad. Mind you I never managed to lose Elly - even when I tried! ;)

Nick said...

Kylie - Interesting that people think Strads must produce a better sound when that's not necessarily the case. Definitely an element of snob value there.

But surely musicians know what they're getting because they try out the instrument before buying? Or do you mean the price tag may be rather arbitrary?

Grannymar - Me too, it's all too easy to forget something if you don't immediately need it! And I'm sure you must have lost Elly occasionally....

kylie said...

my understanding was that the price is a bit arbitrary and also that there is a placebo effect with the musicians imagining the strad sounds better just because of the name

Nick said...

Kylie - I'm sure people imagine a Strad must sound better, just like we think a pricy bottle of wine must taste better than a cheap one.

Terra Shield said...

Glad I'm not a musician toting around an unbelievably expensive instrument!

Nick said...

Terra - Me too! And the Strad was only insured for £750,000....

rummuser said...

Nick, the common man too now has something to worry about and keeps a close watch on - his lap top or pad or book or whatever! All his nasty secrets and also possibly his wealth and wisdom are stored in it. I enjoy watching them mollycoddle those priceless gadgets.

secret agent woman said...

I would be hopeless at keeping track of something that valuable. I once lost my engagement ring, with a sizable diamond, for a couple of weeks and finally found it in the tracks of the closet doors when I nearly vacuumed it up!

Nick said...

Ramana - That's true, laptops and smart phones are pretty precious, though not worth quite as much!

Secret Agent - Engagement rings are a lot easier to lose, being so small. Very lucky it didn't vanish into the vacuum cleaner!

Wisewebwoman said...

H'm got me to thinking of what we value, is it all tied to the cash value?
thought provoking post Nick.
XO
WWW

Nick said...

W3 - I'm sure the average concertgoer would be oblivious to the value of the instruments, and could only say whether the performance was good or bad.

nursemyra said...

Well at least she had SOME insurance. Maybe now she can buy one of the newer ones that may sound better. Still, I imagine for her it's a very crushing loss

Nick said...

Myra - Yes, what violin has she been playing while her Strad is still missing? She must feel totally bereft without it.

newjenny said...

Has anyone seen the whistle I got in my Christmas cracker?

Nick said...

newjenny - I haven't seen it. I hope it was insured.

tattytiara said...

I trust they've got some pretty hard core insurance policies, not that you wouldn't still be hurting from the lost of such an intimate possession. I bow to pianists who can't form the same attachments to instruments, at least not in a performance capacity, and have to make other people's instruments sound like extensions of themselves.

Nick said...

Tattytiara - Very true, you can hardly lug a piano around with you. It must be very frustrating when you're presented with a piano you don't take to at all but you just have to do your best with it.

I imagine the insurance premiums must be pretty hefty, given that in theory someone could nick an instrument so easily.

Scarlet Blue said...

My sax is secondhand... not worth anything like £750,000 - more like £700... I think it's covered by the house contents insurance...? But I do watch it like a hawk whenever I take it anywhere.
Sx

Nick said...

Scarlet - Not necessarily covered by your contents insurance, not if it's something you take outside the house. You probably need a Personal Belongings policy as well.

Baino said...

Hmmm. I hope his insurance cover was better than mine. My camera was stolen from a hire car shop, right from under my daughter's nose and they wouldn't cover me because I supposedly 'abandoned' it. Should have told the police I was mugged. GAH

Nick said...

Baino - I remember you fuming over that at the time! So putting it down for a moment amounts to abandoning it? Insurance companies know every trick for refusing to pay out....

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I am a violinist, and that's heartbreaking. There must be a huge black market in stolen instruments of great value.

Nick said...

Heart - If your violin is an old and long-cherished possession, I'm sure you'd be devastated if it disappeared. And yes, it hadn't occurred to me there could be a black market in instruments. Very likely there is.