In October 2005, Julian Wagner published a brief article in Proctor magazine about a fortunate musical find in a Peking market. An avid violinist, Julian was thrilled at finding this particular violin – until he tried to take it into South Korea!

On a recent part-work, part-pleasure trip to China and South Korea, I had a brush with Korean customs law. In view of recent events in Indonesia, you will appreciate the adrenalin was pumping.

The story starts in China, where I bought an Italian violin at a Bejing market. I was not sure what it was, but I played it at the markets for over an hour and I knew it was a good violin made by an Italian called Sesto Rocchi.

The playing and bargaining itself was an experience! I cannot speak Cantonese and none of the Chinese marketeers could speak English. However, they appeared to enjoy a few tunes I played – including a rendition of the Pink Panther theme! I ended up buying the violin for 4500 yuan (almost $800). The initial asking price was 10,000 yuan. I would have paid the 10,000 yuan, as I realised after playing it that it was actually a better violin than the Czech violin I normally play.

After an Internet search, it became apparent that the violin (pictured) is worth much more. Indeed, a Sesto Rocchi is up for sale in Japan for $50,000. While the violin was only made in the early to mid-20th Century, Rocchi, was, and is still, considered a genius; he was given custody of Paganini’s ‘Cannon’ violin for some time in Italy so as to make violins of the same ilk! I ended up playing the violin to a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music who considered it to be a fine instrument.

Hand luggage

So far, so good and you will appreciate I left China feeling very pleased with myself as I flew back to Seoul, the owner of two violins. I put the Italian violin in my suitcase, which went into cargo, and carried my Czech violin in its case as hand luggage on the plane.

Enter Korean customs. I was approached and first it was my hand luggage, then the (locked) suitcase. At this point, there were four customs officers speakingin Korean and saying things I did not understand. It’s amazing what tone of voice can convey, though and they didn’t sound (or look) too happy.

It started to look very serious when another officer came over with a video camera and started filming me and my gear as they searched through everything. Here, serious fear started to enter the picture.

I could not understand what the problem was and, yes, the immediate thought was that it would be me next running a ‘someone must have put it there’ defence – despite the fact that I had locked my suitcase and it did not appear to have been tampered with.

Things were starting to look and sound particularly ugly. Paranoia, legal training, call it what you will, but I started recording their conversations on my mobile phone sound recorder. Strangely, I found it of some comfort that an official appeared to be filming the whole process.

An English-speaking female Korean customs officer soon arrived and I was told that I was suspected of failing to declare valuable items under laws of the Republic of South Korea. Obviously, part of the rationale for such laws is to prevent the smuggling of antiques and other valuable items into and/or out of Korea. So, I was not being pegged as a drug smug- gler, but an antiques smuggler. I perhaps should have felt more comfort than what I did.

I explained that I was a violinist and also a lawyer. Indeed, I explained that I had, in the past, prosecuted smuggling offences in Australia and was the last person to be a smuggler. Clearly, my less-than-petite frame did not fit the Korean customs’ idea of a violin player (or probably a lawyer for that matter); my obviously feeble attempts at exonerating myself elicited from the Korean speakers whatI suspect could be translated as ‘likely story’ (or the Korean equivalent).

I also tried to explain that I did not know that I had to declare the violins as there was no notification of this in the entry cards – nor elsewhere for that matter. A similar response. Obviously, a new tack was required.

I produced photographs of me playing the Italian violin at the Beijing market where I bought it. At last, a flicker of hope. My captors, though, required a little more in the hard evidence stakes – I was required to play the violin.

So, I played them ‘Fawlty Towers’, which I considered apt for the occasion! This less than classical piece immediately produced more customs officals. It also obviously broke the tedium of Korean customs for a lot of other Koreans as well.

Perhaps as part of the investigation, the video-toting customs official had now turned his camera onto the performance – duly recording the whole thing. Feeling by now both emboldened and on my way to freedom, I also played a romantic Italian tune and a tango, ‘La Cumparsita’, for the English-Speaking customs officer who in fact blushed when I said, “This is for you!”

By the time I finished playing and told them I was tired and had to meet some friends, there must have been about 100 people standing around. I received applause and was thanked for the performance. For my own record of this experience, I had my photo taken with the English-speaking custom official, Maria, (albeit on my mobile phone). I had also taken some of my own footage during the search on my mobile phone video recorder just in case it became necessary in my own defence!

I told the customs officials that I was impressed with the fact that they video-recorded searches. Indeed, I suggested that they should perhaps recommend mandatory video-recording to their counterparts in Indonesia at all times during a search. The sheer irony of my Korean customs experience was that I had around that time provided pro bono assistance in the hope of helping with Schapelle Corby and had consulted with eminent lawyers such as Phil Opas QC, Geoffrey Robertson QC and Professor Gabriel Moens, an expert in international law and the inquisitorial system that exists in most Asian countries.

I then received an apology from a man who appeared to be the most senior officer and then an abundance of hand-shaking and bowing took place. Ah, but this was customs after all: I was still required to fill out forms for both violins and was given a copy of a valuable goods declaration which I had to present to Korean customs together with the violins before I could leave Korea to return to Australia.

So, it all ended – wait for it – on a good note, although I was chastised by my Korean friend for my Western bad manners in being late for dinner!

A tale of two violins by Julian Wagner was originally published in Proctor October 2005, p 61.

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