Despite the difficulty thieves might find reselling famous works of the master luthier, history shows that Stradivariuses hold enduring attraction to thieves.
The story of the stolen Stradivarius violin that is probably most familiar to Americans is that of the Totenberg-Ames Stradivari (circa 1734). This is because the first part of that name, Totenberg, is the surname of a longtime National Public Radio reporter, Nina Totenberg.
The violin was missing for 35 years but is today on loan to a young virtuoso named Nathan Meltzer. It was returned in 2015 to Ms. Totenberg and her two sisters, three years after the death of her father, Roman Totenberg. The elder Totenberg was a Polish-born prodigy, performer and teacher, who purchased his Stradivarius in 1943 for $15,000 (it is now valued at between $5 million and $10 million). The ex-wife of the likely thief found the instrument after his death and it was identified when she went to a reputable violin shop to have it appraised.
The story, which Ms. Totenberg reported to her national audience, raises awareness of the many thefts that have occurred with these highly prized Italian violins. (Stradivari primarily made violins, but also a smaller number of cellos and violas).
One such recent theft, in which the instrument went missing for only a week, was of the Lipinski Stradivarius (circa 1715), taken in an armed robbery from concertmaster Frank Almond after a performance in 2014 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The thief seemed to lack a plan for how to resell it, which is difficult to do with any rare instrument or piece of art because a buyer who would be willing to pay millions for it would in all likelihood also know the transaction and provenance are illegitimate.
Another stolen Stradivarius, which has yet to be recovered, was from the 91-year-old Erica Morini while she lay dying in a hospital. Taken from her New York apartment in 1995, the Davidoff-Morini (circa 1727) was purchased for her (price: $10,000) by her father in 1924.
Other Stradivari that have been stolen at some point include:
- Oistrakh (circa 1671), once owned by Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, it was stolen in 1996 and returned in 1997 to the Glinka Museum in Moscow
- Andrew Bernardi (current owner, circa 1696), it was taken from Min-Jin Kym in London in 2010 and recovered in 2013
- King Maximilian; Unico (circa 1790), stolen in 1999 and not recovered
- Karpilowsky (circa 1712), stolen from Harry Solloway in 1953 and not recovered
- Gibson; ex-Huberman (circa 1713), stolen, recovered and stolen a second time from Bronislaw Huberman in 1936 and recovered in 1985
- Le Maurien (circa 1714), stolen in 2002 and not recovered
- Colossus (circa 1716), stolen in Rome in 1998 and not recovered
- Kochanski (circa 1717), stolen in 1987 and recovered in 1991
- Sinsheimer; Iselin (circa 1721), stolen in 2008 and recovered in 2009
- Duke of Alcantara, aka the UCLA Strad (circa 1732), either stolen or left on the roof of a car in 1967 (seriously?), it was recovered in 1995
- Herkules/King David (circa 1734), stolen in 1908 and recovered in 1925
- Lamereaux (circa 1735), missing or stolen in 1962 and not recovered
- General Kyd (circa 1684), stolen in 2004 and recovered
- Gore Booth (circa 1710), stolen by the Nazis along with the Gustav Klimt “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, the subject of the 2015 biographical movie “Woman in Gold;” it was recovered from German authorities in 1956
Other mishaps to Stradivarius violins include car accidents, car crashes and the bombing of Dresden in 1945. Art may endure, but the fine instruments of art themselves do not always survive. Which among the unrecovered instruments remain in someone’s attic, waiting to be found?