Swedish PI, Berne Barvefjord, admires a special trophy marking 50 years an ABI member.
At the age of 80, Berne Barvefjord is retiring. “Maybe I’ll lean back and simply stroke the dog,” he told the ABI.
Celebrating fifty years of membership, the ABI took the opportunity to interview Berne and ask him about his life in general and, in particular, as a private investigator.
Berne was born in the village of Orrefors in southeast Sweden, famous for its spectacularly artistic crystal. “Almost everyone there worked in the glass factory,” he told us. “My father worked there all his life and so did I during the summer holidays. I was 15 years old and already realising that I would see nothing of the world if I stayed. So, I sought out an occupation that would afford me an opportunity to travel. It was 1955.
“Sweden has had many famous maritime adventurers, so I chose to follow their lead and go to sea. I spent some time in a cooking school in Kalmar and got to work in the galley of a huge tanker. However, discovering that my kitchen had no windows, I saw very little of the world, and even less of the sea. What was worse, after a couple of years, I developed an allergy to flour. That put pay to life as a sailor, so I switched to soldiering; as a commander doing my military service. I served several tours with UN forces in Africa and Cyprus.
“Whilst on extended leave, I also worked for a security company and I was even given a guard dog. I never had a dog before and mine was not an easy one to control. But my employer encouraged us to enter competitions and, as he was a great tracker, we won lots of first prizes. One of the judges had a secretary called Ulla; an 18-year-old schoolgirl with blue eyes, and a boxer-dog. There’s no need to go into the full story . . . let’s just say we’ve now been married for 55 years!
“I was called on for more UN tours, but when Ulla finished all her exams, I got my orders: ‘Get yourself a job in Sweden!’
“So, I learned how to administrate local authority owned rental properties. That was no fun at all because I was ordered to keep costs down. When people wanted nice wallpapers in bright colours, I had to tell them: ‘No, you can only have grey paint on your walls.’
“That’s when I realised that I was more suited to a job where I could actually help people. The police sounded exciting, especially investigation work, but I wouldn’t be at all interested in picking up drunks, or mundane traffic duties. However, I could avoid that if I started a private investigation business. I told Ulla. She laughed . . . long and loud!
“It was now 1965. No license was needed to operate in Sweden, [as is still the case today], so I put a tiny advert in the Stockholm daily paper. I picked up surveillance jobs, dealing with infidelity. The following year, I was in the phone book and that’s when the lawyers started to contact me.
“’Don’t give up the day-job,’ is the saying and I was continuing as a property administrator, but by 1968, I felt that there was sufficient work coming in for us to live on. I remember the day vividly. A lady in one of the Stockholm apartments asked for a fancy turquoise wallpaper in her entrance hall. ”Yes, you can have it,” I said. ”I will tick the box for that super-expensive thing. I don’t care. I´m quitting this job tomorrow.’ I do hope she got it!
“In the early-60s, there were only two or three private investigators in the whole country and nowhere how to learn the skill. Everything was learned on the hoof. In 1969-1970 I joined WAD and ABI. At that time, to make a phone-call abroad, it had to be booked with the operator. You waited a couple of hours for it to come through. And boy, was it expensive? But I met many good colleagues around the world who helped me with insurance cases. So, for a long time, the insurance companies were my best clients.
We asked Berne to tell us of any spectacular cases.
“Yes. Two brothers had rented a sailing boat to cross the Baltic. The story went that one fell overboard. The other tried to save him, failed, got ashore, and walked for five hours along the road to Mariehamn in order to alert the police. Searches by police, sea-rescue helicopters, and boats were eventually abandoned. There was a recent life insurance policy worth a few million SEK, and it took only a few days for the ‘widow’, [let’s call her Elsa], to contact the insurance company.
“I was called in to investigate and soon discovered Elsa was a hairdresser. I sent Ulla along as a customer. Elsa was very talkative. Ulla told her she was looking for inspiration for a two-week holiday and Elsa spoke warmly about Lanzarote.
“Some weeks later, Ulla had another haircut; [her hair was very short for some months]. Ulla told her that she would be away in Lanzarote for a few weeks. We found out when the shop would be closed and as soon as that happened, off we went too! We found Elsa and tailed her for a week. But we were a little disappointed . . . no husband! On our last day, we followed Elsa to the post office. She had a huge parcel, too big to lift over the counter, so it remained on the floor. Whilst I bought some stamps, Ulla photographed the label. It was addressed to the ‘late’ husband at a harbour factory on another Spanish island.
“We flew there and, renting a car, watched the factory around the clock. On the fourth day, the ‘dead man’ came to the factory, collected the parcel, and then boarded a boat in the harbour. We discovered he was living on the boat, which he owned, and he was with another woman!
“Elsa was sent to prison because she had claimed the insurance money; our evidence of the parcel clinching her guilt. Her ‘late’ husband went free.
“Meeting other investigators all over the world has been very inspiring and useful. Ulla and I have made life-long personal friends with whom we meet privately. We have travelled together and stayed at each other’s homes. Our kids have contact with their kids.
“It was the late Peter Heims who introduced me to ABI. One of the moments I will never forget was a meeting in England, I have forgotten precisely where, when some of us ended up in an hotel-room for a ‘nightcap’. I remember Tony Kinghorn, Zena Scott-Archer, some other British, a Dutchman and two German fellows who were at their first meeting. Unthinkingly, the Dutchman asked Tony what it had been like to survive the war. We listened to the horror stories of bombing and general suffering. One of the Germans said: ‘I was one of those who dropped the bombs.’ Silence! Then both rose at the same time, embraced each other, and the German guy said: ‘I am damned glad that I missed! Let’s have a drink!’
“Most of the insurance companies these days employ their own investigators. It’s hard for me to say if the industry has changed very much over the years, other than the amazing technology, of course. In Sweden, a lot of information about people still is public. It just takes time to collect it. I would say that the only thing you cannot investigate is bank accounts.
“At the age of 80 I can’t even consider spending four days in a car on a surveillance. I still do work for old clients, but only such that I can manage from my comfortable office, which these days is at home. When I close my business for good, our two kids will not take it on. Our son is in the security business but with completely different tasks and our daughter is running a funeral business.
“Covid-19 has affected all of us in every way. My business has no employees and no big expenses, so when summing up this past year, I will find that I have a profit. But my daughter’s profit is five times greater . . . unfortunately!”
The ABI marked Berne’s fifty years’ membership by commissioning him a special long-service award in the form of a classic trophy. Sadly, it wasn’t crystal from his home-village of Orrefors.
You may congratulate Berne Barvefjord of Stockholms Detektivbyra at email@example.com