Theft of a violin – Updated

On Monday night in Milwaukee a violin was stolen.  OK.  So why are you blogging about this, you maybe wondering.  Because the violin stolen was not just any violin.  The New York Times reports

It should have been one of those nights musicians live for. Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for nearly two decades, had just closed a chamber concert in his own “Frankly Music” series with Messiaen’s hushed, eerily intense “Quartet for the End of Time.” Mr. Almond drew the graceful, ringing high notes of the finale from his prized 1715 Stradivarius violin, producing a tone so intensely focused that the audience in the Wisconsin Lutheran College’s 388-seat auditorium sat in awed silence for 20 seconds before applauding.

But the glow of the moment evaporated quickly, once Mr. Almond, 49, stepped into the college art center’s parking lot at 10:20 p.m. Monday, his violin carefully swaddled against the subzero temperatures and minus-25-degree wind chill. And as he neared his car, a figure stepped up to him and shot him with a stun gun.

It happened in a matter of seconds: Mr. Almond dropped the violin, the attacker scooped it up and jumped into a late 1980s or early ’90s maroon or burgundy minivan, where an accomplice was waiting to speed away. Edward A. Flynn, the Milwaukee police chief, said late Thursday afternoon that Mr. Almond had described the thieves as a man and a woman. Chief Flynn has given the value of the violin as “the high seven figures.” The police said earlier that the violin’s empty case had been found several miles from the hall.

Stradivarius violin

Stradivarius violin

We read all the time about musicians and their favored instruments.  They are always transporting them around in cabs, on subways, on trains and planes.  I once saw the cellist, Yo Yo Ma, with his cello on Boston’s Red Line.  Probably the same cello he has left at least once in a cab.  My husband told me when I mentioned I was going to blog about Mr. Almond, that he once left his trumpet on the Orange Line.  Luckily someone had turned it into the MBTA lost and found.  Mr.  Almond can certainly get another high quality violin, but probably not another Strad.

What is shocking about the incident is that it was not stolen from a dressing room left unlocked or lost on some public conveyance, but that he was attacked just as if someone was going to steal his watch or wallet or ring and that it was clearly planned.

A spokeswoman for the orchestra confirmed that the instrument was insured, but said that because of the investigation, she could not provide details about the amount, or what restrictions, if any, applied to the use of the instrument. Given its prominence — high-resolution photographs of Strads are plentiful — it would be virtually impossible to sell the instrument on the open market.

“We’re not engaging in the pretense that this is just any other crime,” Chief Flynn said on Thursday. “This is an extraordinary art theft. It is just as extraordinary as if some master criminal crept into the Milwaukee Art Museum and stole several of its most valuable pieces. It’s an inordinately rare violin of unquestioned provenance, made 300 years ago and worth a lot of money. So obviously we are treating this like much more than just another mugging.”

Like the paintings stolen and never recovered from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum which also can’t be sold.  If they are still around, some wealthy person somewhere is enjoying them or they are lying abandoned in a basement or attic.  I hope it is the former.

…Antonio Stradivari was, by common agreement among violin fanciers, the master builder of violins, a creator of instruments with a sound that subsequent makers have been at a loss to reproduce. Fewer than 650 of Stradivari’s violins survive, and Mr. Almond’s — which was given to him on “permanent loan” by an anonymous patron in 2008 — is regarded as a particularly fine example.

Called the Lipinski Strad, after an early owner, the instrument was built in 1715, when Stradivari was in his prime. The first known owner was the composer and virtuoso violinist Giuseppe Tartini, who flourished in the early 18th century and whose “Devil’s Trill” Sonata remains one of the Baroque repertory’s great showpieces. Karol Lipinski, a Polish player who was friendly with Paganini, Liszt and Schumann, owned it in the early 19th century. It made its way to Milwaukee in 1962, in the possession of Evi Liivak, an Estonian violinist, who died in 1996. Then it dropped out of sight until the current owner offered it to Mr. Almond.

A stolen instrument is very difficult to recover.  According to the FBI, 11 violins (including 6 Strads) have been stolen since 1985; only 3 are known to have been recovered.

…In one recent case, a 1696 Stradivarius was stolen in November 2010 from Min-Jin Kym, a young South Korean violinist who was living in London, while she and a friend ate lunch at Euston Station. The violin was found in July 2013.

A more famous case was the 1713 Strad (called the Gibson) owned by the early 20th-century violinist Bronislaw Huberman. It was stolen from Huberman twice: once from a hotel room in Vienna, in 1916, and then in 1936 from his dressing room at Carnegie Hall while he was onstage playing another instrument. The violin was recovered only in 1985 (Huberman died in 1947) when a jazz violinist who had been playing it in smoky clubs all those years made a deathbed confession. It is currently owned by the violinist Joshua Bell.

We hope that the Milwaukee Strad ends up in the hands of someone who will play it and they will have listeners who will enjoy the music.


The Strad recovered.

The Strad recovered.

It is reported this morning that the violin has been recovered.  The New York Times reports

A Stradivarius violin stolen last month from the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has been recovered seemingly unharmed, the authorities in Milwaukee announced on Thursday.

The rare instrument, which dates from 1715 and has been valued at $5 million, was recovered Wednesday night, after the police searched a residence in Milwaukee, led there by one of three suspects recently arrested in the case, Edward A. Flynn, the Milwaukee chief of police, said at a news conference. Officers found the violin in a suitcase in an attic. Chief Flynn described the home as owned by a friend of a suspect, but said that person was believed to have had no knowledge of what he had been asked to store.

And arrests were made.

On Wednesday, the Milwaukee police announced they had arrested two men and a woman this week in connection with the theft. On Thursday, officials identified two of the suspects as Universal Knowledge Allah, 36, a local barber who is being accused of providing the stun gun used against Mr. Almond; and Salah Ibin Jones, 41, whom the police described as their primary suspect. The third suspect, a 32-year-old woman, was not identified but is believed to have been driving the getaway vehicle.

The police have confirmed reports that Mr. Jones was previously convicted of possessing a stolen sculpture four years after it disappeared from a Milwaukee art gallery nearly two decades ago.

“This individual has done fairly high-end art theft in the past, and the last time his plan was to keep it in a safe place for a number of years and then bring it out of hiding and do something with it,” Chief Flynn said. “So theoretically it’s plausible that might have been his plan here: to keep it off the market and out of sight for a number of years.”

Stefan Hersh, a violin expert who appraised the instrument in 2012, said he had been contacted by the F.B.I. and went to Milwaukee on Thursday to authenticate the instrument. Seeing no damage, he performed a piece by Bach on the 300-year-old Stradivarius, a private concert for the police.

I’m sure we will hear more about how the violin was found in the attic, but at least it is safe and wasn’t there long enough to be damaged.  How could they have thought that wood would survive the heat and cold there and still have value many years from now?  But luckily that didn’t happen and it will be played again.

Photograph of a Stradivarius:  Michael Darnton

Photograph of recovered violin:  Darren Hauck/Reuters

7 thoughts on “Theft of a violin – Updated

  1. That is just horrible. The musician will never be able to play the same way again without that violin. It will probably end up never touched again, in some jerk’s collection. Although I have hope just based in the age and commonality of the vehicle the thieves used. Unless it was stolen beforehand just to commit the crime..

  2. Wow. As soon as I started reading I thought “please don’t let it be a Stradivarius!” I have heard that they can sell for well over $1,000,000. Amazing.

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