The case of the stolen Stradivarius

October 13, 2014

Stradivarius violins are so important that they come with their own biographies. Several hundred of them survive today, and they're so prized you can trace their lineages through the musicians who played them over the centuries.

The instruments have been valued at prices ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to several million. That kind of money attracts a lot of non-musicians, like investors — and thieves.

There's always intrigue involved when one of the instruments goes missing. They've been stolen out of Carnegie Hall, out of a New York City apartment, out of a London sandwich shop — and, most recently, from a parking lot in Milwaukee.

Stealing The Lipinski

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond had just finished a performance on a frigid Wisconsin night in January of this year.

With a rare violin, the Lipinski Stradivarius, slung over his shoulder, he walked out into the freezing parking lot towards his car.

"I sort of walk briskly to my car and notice an unusual Scooby-Doo-looking van backed in next to my car," Frank Almond says. "And it was running."

As Almond put the violin case in his backseat, he noticed someone getting out of the van.

"I thought, 'Why is he getting closer and why is he trying to take my picture?' "

The flashing light Almond thought was a camera flash was actually a taser.

"Very jarring electric shock, like when you get hit with 50,000 volts or so, I suppose," he says.

Almond hit the ground and the van sped out of the parking lot. The Lipinski Stradivarius, worth between $5 and $6 million, was gone.

A Master Luthier

Stradivarius instruments, also known as Strads, are worth so much because there are only about 650 left in the world.

The maker, a 17th- and 18th-century Italian luthier named Antonio Stradivari, is considered the best there ever was.

He crafted violas, cellos and harps, but the sound of his violins, in particular, seems to get better with age.

To truly understand the value of a centuries-old Stradivarious, you have to see one up close.

Nicolette Kocsardy opens a plain, brown violin case. Inside, on olive-green velvet padding and underneath a silk cloth, is a Stradivarius known as the "Duke of Alcantara," after its original owner.

Kocsardy is a graduate student at UCLA. The school owns this Strad, made in 1732, worth about $2 million.

"The first thing I noticed was how light it is," Kocsardy says. "It's very light compared to any violin I've held. I never had anything this precious in my hands."

It's usually locked away in a vault on campus, but now Kocsardy gets to play it for the first time.

"It's very sensitive," she says. "It's like a really nice car that you just lightly push the pedal, and then it's zooming by."

Back in the '60s, this Strad was also stolen. Either that, or the man who had it on loan accidentally left it on the roof of his car and drove off.

Either way, it was found beside a freeway on-ramp — that's the story, at least. Each Stradivarius seems to have some story of survival.

Case Closed

Back in Milwaukee, days went by without a trace of the Lipinski Stradivarius, which was on loan to Almond.

It seemed like the perfect crime. Even before the instrument was stolen, the thief had watched Almond's every move.

"The guy knew where I lived, he knew my kids' names," Almond says. "He had actually attended a concert — and I hope he enjoyed the concert … This was a very, very premeditated incident that was on this guy's mind for at least five or six years."

One detail that the thief overlooked, though, was that an item that hot can't stay hidden for very long.

The Milwaukee Police Department and the FBI worked quickly. At a local news conference one week after the theft, Police Chief Edward Flynn approached the podium.

"Today the Milwaukee Police Department is pleased and very proud to announce the safe recovery of the Lapinski Stradivarius violin that was stolen," he said.

Police had discovered it, undamaged, the night before — in a suitcase in an attic.

Two men were arrested, including the mastermind behind the theft, who pleaded guilty this month to felony robbery.

Now, the violin is safely back in the hands of Frank Almond.

"It's survived wars and revolutions and most recently, someone trying to steal it," he says.

Just another story of survival to add to this 299-year-old Stradivarius violin.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

You Made It...

...through this story! And by donating right now you can make even more stories like this one possible.

MAKE YOUR GIFT TODAY