Cellist's Bow is Damaged in Airport Mishap

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It’s been a bumpy ride recently for cellists traveling with their instruments.

Alban Gerhardt, a noted German cello soloist, said Tuesday that his precious cello bow, valued at $20,000, was damaged by inspectors from the Transportation Security Administration at Washington's Dulles Airport on Feb. 6.

The bow, which Gerhardt normally checks in a travel case along with the instrument, arrived in Chicago snapped in half, and possibly damaged beyond repair. The cellist believes the damage was caused by careless security staff. “My bow must have moved out of its cover, and instead of putting it back in, they just slammed the case shut and broke the bow that way over the bridge,” he said in an interview.

Gerhardt’s ordeal began during a trip from Berlin to Madison, WI, where he was scheduled to perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. After checking the instrument in Berlin, he retrieved it in Washington as he passed through customs. He then rechecked the instrument, and only discovered the damage upon arriving at O'Hare, along with an inspection notice from the TSA. He has filed a claim with the agency.

In an e-mail, TSA spokesman Lisa Farbstein said the agency "takes the issue of claims very seriously," adding, "it truly is a shame about Mr. Gerhardt’s bow. I recommend that he file a claim to our Claims Management Branch for their review and adjudication. I would encourage him to file the claim as soon as possible with his flight information so that the airport might be able to retrieve any potential videotape of his case being opened."

The Strad magazine first reported the incident on its website on Monday.

The bow was made by the 19th-century German maker Heinrich Knopf. Gerhardt, who is flying home on Tuesday night after a brief stopover in New York, purchased it in 2001. He said he plans to take the snapped bow to a luthier in Berlin, although the odds of a repair appear to be slight.

Gerhardt added in an e-mail that he has been traveling internationally since 1990, "almost never buying a second seat for my cello and nothing ever happened.” He says he is now considering buying a ticket for it instead of checking it in the baggage hold.

The incident in the latest in a series of reports of expensive string instruments being subjected to rough treatment from security and baggage handlers as well as restrictive new airline policies.

The TSA's Farbstein said the agency is in the process of installing more surveillance cameras in baggage screening areas that are not open to public view. It is also adding new systems that will reduce the need for physical inspections.