Violin found: Stolen $5m Stradivarius recovered in Milwaukee, apparently unharmed

A Stradivarius violin stolen from the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in an armed robbery last month was recovered in a Milwaukee attic on Thursday, police said.

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/AP
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond plays a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin during a concert in Milwaukee. The instrument was stolen from him in late January, and police said Thursday that the violin, appraised for insurance purposes at $5 million, had been recovered in a Milwaukee attic.

A Stradivarius violin stolen from the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in an armed robbery last month was recovered early Thursday, apparently unharmed.

The violin, worth some $5 million and almost 300 years old, was found overnight Wednesday in a suitcase in a Milwaukee resident’s attic, police told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Thursday. Milwaukee police had a day earlier arrested three people, one of whom had a record of art theft-related arrests, in connection with the theft.

The stolen violin, known as the Lipinski Strad, after one of its earlier virtuoso owners, Karol Lipinksi, is an original Stradivarius violin, built in 1715 by Antonio Stradivari and one of a famed group of string instruments built in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Stradivari family.

The Stradivarius violins, of which there are fewer than 650 left, are distinguishable from each other to in-the-know dealers. That makes them difficult for thieves to sell without arousing suspicion, and police said on Thursday that the suspects’ motives were still unclear.

“It emphasises the fact that you cannot get rid of these instruments,” Bruno Price, a New York-based expert on rare instruments, told The Guardian. “It’s impossible to resell them – so it’s a silly crime to even try.”

The Lipinski Strad had come to Frank Almond, the Milwaukee concertmaster, in 2008, on permanent loan from an anonymous owner.

“An instrument like this is part of the cultural inheritance of us all and should be enjoyed by as many people as possible,” the donor said, in a statement to the Journal Sentinel at the time.

All went well for a while. Stefan Hersh, a Chicago-based violin curator who helped restore the Lipinski after it was given to Mr. Almond, told the AP that the concertmaster had kept the violin under close watch.

"He had a special case made for it, he kept it highly protected in his car, he never let it out of his sight," Mr. Hersh said.

But that could be no match for an armed thief. Around 10:20 p.m. on Jan. 27, as Almond walked to his car following a chamber concert with the instrument at Wisconsin Lutheran College, someone assaulted him with a stun gun, scooped up the violin, and slipped into a getaway van with another person. Alarmingly, the violin’s case was found hours later, dumped in northern Milwaukee, police told the Journal Sentinel. But the violin was nowhere to be found.

At first, Milwaukee authorities had expressed concern that the high-profile art theft was an international orchestration, and agents from Interpol and the FBI's Art Theft Program were called into the investigation, The New York Times reported. It appeared to have turned out, though, that the heist episode was a local one, opening and closing in Milwaukee. Police said much of the information leading to the violin had related to the stun gun that the robber had used, the Journal Sentinel reported.

At a news conference Thursday, police told reporters that the violin would be returned to Almond in the evening. Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra president Mark Niehaus also told press at the conference that the violin appeared to be unharmed.

"We have pretty strong confidence that the violin is fine," Mr. Niehaus said.

Stradivarius instruments – multimillion-dollar objects that, given the demands of a musician’s job, must be hauled from place to place – have had bad run-ins before.

In 2004, a $3.5-million Stradivarius cello was stolen from the front steps of a Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist's home and not found until three days later, left near a dumpster. The young woman that happened on the abandoned instrument, not recognizing what she had found, had asked her cabinet-maker boyfriend if he thought the cello’s wood could be repurposed, fashioned into an ornamental compact disk case.

The couple matched the cello to a police report before doing so, though, and the cello – one of just 60 Stradivari cellos in existence – was returned to its owner as a cello, not a CD holder.

"Thank God my boyfriend doesn't work too quickly on things of mine," the woman said, according to The Los Angeles Times.

In 1999, world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma forgot his $2.5 million Stradivarius cello in a taxi, after an 18-minute ride from 86th Street to 55th in New York. An army of police officers returned it to him that afternoon.

''I made a stupid mistake," he told reporters that afternoon, “and I just left without it.''

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