Better safe than sorry: Classical musicians navigate the complicated world of instrument insurance

Claire Givens Violins sells cello cases, but also recommends that customers protect their instruments by purchasing insuranceClaire Givens Violins

March 13, 2015

Last month, we shared the story of Olivia Quintanilla, a young cellist who had the unthinkable happen when someone fell on her cello. Quintanilla didn't have insurance for her instrument, in part because when she had previously sought coverage, she was denied. The story led us to wonder what the options are for musicians to insure their instruments.

"You'd be surprised how many musicians don't have any insurance at all," says Neil Trainor, from Dolliff Insurance, who works with many of the musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. He's been in the business for 35 years, and warns that one of the worst things a musician can do is to assume that their instrument will be covered under their homeowner's or renter's insurance, which many people rely on. "There tend to be a lot of ifs, ands, and buts," Trainor says about that kind of insurance — but the main thing is that those insurance companies often really don't understand anything about owning a valuable musical instrument.

If you are going to go with homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance, you have to be sure to get a rider that specifically covers your instrument, Trainor says.

That's what Jen Rand, a local violinist, says she hopes to do at some point, but hasn't gotten around to it yet. She says right now she's using her renter's insurance with Allstate, which she says she can do because she makes less than a third of her income on her music. "One of my instruments is worth quite a bit of money, so for that one it would be worth it," she says. To do that, she'd need to get an appraisal (which is around $85) and pay the extra expense for the insurance.

Joe Dolson, a musician with the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra, says that for the past eight years he's purchased insurance through Music Pro Insurance, though he's never had to make a claim. He says it's easy to renew and the cost seems reasonable, but without ever making a claim, "it's hard to know how effective they'd be in that crucial circumstance," he says.

Another option is to buy insurance through the American Federation of Musicians, which offers instrument insurance policies through Mercer Consumer. Trainor, though, says that often classical musicians will opt away from those plans because the rates aren't that great. The reason for the higher cost is that AFM's plan also covers rock band instruments, which for obvious reasons are at much greater risk risk than your average violin or flute.

"The more you are leaving your home or place of work, the more risk there will be," Trainor says. A big risk is car accidents, but there are also thefts — which are most likely to happen in a car as well, he says.

Claire Givens Violins lists a number of insurance options on their website, including Clarion Associates, Inc., Merz-Huber Company, Ellis Horseman of Heritage Insurance Services, Inc., and Trainor. Givens reiterated Trainor's advice that homeowner's and renter's insurance is often not adequate, especially if your instrument has a value of over $5,000. "Above that, you really should go to a specialist," she says. "The best coverage is to get a separate policy." If you don't have a separate rider, she says, your insurance will probably not cover your instrument.

"The problem with some homeowner's policies is they don't really understand the world of fine instruments," Givens says.

Some things to look for when shopping around, Givens says, is how much of a deductible the policy has, and whether they dictate where you can go shopping for a replacement. Another issue is that for an instrument that has been damaged, the value will be depreciated, so "it's very important to ask about a depreciation clause," she says.

Another thing to consider, Givens says, is that for some organizations and associations, you can get a discount. For example, members of the American String Teachers Association enjoy a big discount through Merz-Huber Co.

Also watch out for whether the insurance provider has a minimum cost. Ellis Hershman, for example, won't insure for less than $250 a year, Givens says, whereas Trainor has a minimum policy for $50.

Zack Kline, a violin and fiddle teacher, is covered up to $25,000 through Travelers Insurance, which costs him a couple hundred dollars a year. He lists all the equipment that he owns, which includes ten instruments, and the policy covers everything but laptops. (For some reason, the insurance also specifically does not cover damage due to animal waste.) Kline's never had to make a claim, but he says that as an owner of ten instruments with an average price of $1,000 or more, he'd be at risk of financial and professional disaster if he didn't have insurance.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She writes frequently for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and City Pages, among other publications.

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