The return of a rare cello leaves a trail of question marks

It was a surreal mixture of humor and pathos - both unintentional.

There were stone-faced cops, cranky journalists, spotlight-grabbing city officials, and a restorer of priceless artifacts who spoke cryptically in hushed tones.

All surrounded the guest of honor, presented as "the happiest man in Los Angeles today" - a relieved but still red-faced cellist who looked as if he just swallowed a small string quartet and a couple of percussionists.

All were gathered in this city's newest shrine to high art, the titanium-skinned Walt Disney Concert Hall, for an example of that rare media phenomenon: a good-news conference.

With national and international press packed cheek by jowl in the Philharmonic's Choral Hall, sound booms were lowered, lights aimed, and pens poised.

But somehow, despite the best intentions, the Tuesday affair raised as many questions as it answered with this announcement: The Philharmonic's $3.5 million Stradivarius cello, stolen from the principal cellist's home last month, had been found.

The objet du jour was not there - only oversized, full color photos of the vintage 1684 instrument. Perched on giant easels were images of the city's seemingly most-talked-about single crime since the Black Dahlia murder in 1947 - sprawled on a white-clothed operating table in an unnamed location.

A professorial-looking man in blue rubber gloves hovered next to a bulb-lit magnifying glass, examining damage to the instrument as if it were wounds of a human victim on TV-hit "CSI: Crime Scene Investigators."

But those wounds - appearing as a nearly imperceptible crack down the cello's face (perhaps 10 inches long), cracks on the back (not shown), and loosened strings - were only explained as "routine." The instrument would be restored to full value by October, said Robert Cauer, the Philharmonic's string technician.

"I wasn't there to see the injuries happen so I couldn't say," Mr. Cauer told me, rebuffing a query about what they were and how they could be fixed.

Second on the list of question marks was Philharmonic Principal Cellist Peter Stumpf, who had been in personal purgatory since the theft. The musician had arrived home late and weary after performing in Santa Barbara on April 25, and carelessly left the cello on the front steps.

How could an instrument - one of 60 cellos made 320 years ago by master instrumentmaker Antonio Stradivari - be left like a forgotten sack of groceries? Los Angeles Philharmonic Association President Deborah Borda cheerfully reminded reporters this kind of forgetfulness happens all the time. In January, violinist Gidon Kremer forgot his $3 million Guarneri del Gesu instrument on a train. In 1999, Yo-Yo Ma left his own $2.5 million Stradivarius cello in a New York City taxi.

In this particular case, a home security camera across the street picked up grainy images of a young man getting off a bicycle and taking the cello from the porch around 6:30 a.m. It also recorded the crash of his bicycle into trash cans before escaping.

With most of the press eagerly awaiting their chance to question Mr. Stumpf, the cellist stepped to the microphone with lowered eyes and Nixonian anxiety. In a low, quiet voice he told the gathering how relieved he was ("this has been an enormous weight on me for weeks"), and was whisked out a back door.

"We all came to ask Mr. Stumpf questions," said local TV personality Laurel Erickson of KNBC TV. "Can't you bring him back?"

Her answer came with a sideways head shake and two words from Ms. Borda. "Nuh-uh." (Mr. Stumpf, she explained, was needed in a crucial rehearsal.)

Last up, LAPD Detective Donald Hrycyk, cut from the same polite-but-taciturn cloth as Jack Webb of "Dragnet," adeptly sidestepped questions about the crime's ongoing investigation, not wanting to play his cards to the cello's thief, still at large.

Detective Hrycyk and assistant chief Jim McDonald merely reiterated already-known details. The cello was returned by a woman who found it next to a dumpster on April 28. A homeless man helped her place it in the trunk of her car. She brought the cello home and asked her boyfriend, a cabinetmaker, if he could repair it.

A week and a half later the woman caught a news report about the missing cello and the $50,000 reward for its return. She logged on to the police website to review the mug shot: Length: 30 1/2 inches. Color: golden brown. Identifying marks: original label stating "Cremona 1684."

After peering inside the instrument and making out a faded label that looked as if it read 1600s, she hired a lawyer.

"We are examining several leads and checking into the story of this woman," said Hrycyk.

Frustrated grumbles began making their way through the crowd. ("This story doesn't add up, these details are too squirrely," said one veteran reporter.) Then City Councilman Tom LaBonge stepped to the mike.

"Hey, wait a minute, this is a good news story and you're a part of it," he said. "Go out there and write a good news story."

It is a good news story, but an incomplete one. One reason, according to veteran violin restorer Adam Crane, relates to the rarefied, and somewhat cloak-and-dagger world of rare and valuable instruments.

"My guess is that they know a whole lot more about what happened and aren't saying because there is so much money involved," says Mr. Crane. For reasons of insurance, assessment, and resale, the less that is known about a given instrument and how it was damaged, the better off the owner is, he says.

L.A.'s fictional detective Philip Marlowe might have said the press left the room wearing those plastic smiles people wear when they are trying not to scream.

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