By Brian Wise
When it comes to musical- instrument thefts, art-crimes experts will say that a few myths should be dispelled right away:
• There is not a black market for musical instruments.
• Premeditated robberies are exceedingly rare, vastly outnumbered by crimes of opportunity—for example, the violin snatched from the back seat of a car or from the luggage racks on a train.
• Instrument thieves are not suave Thomas Crown Affair types. Instead, they are the kind of small-time crooks who rob cars or houses looking for jewelry and laptops. They are nearly always opportunistic and shortsighted.
“They’re not interested in playing the instrument—that I can assure you,” says Robert K. Wittman, a retired FBI special agent who in 2005 founded the bureau’s Art Crime Team. “What they’re interested in doing is trying to make a quick flip and make as much money as they can off it.”
During a 20-year career with the FBI, Wittman helped to recover more than $300-million worth of stolen art and cultural property, according to his biography, including a Goya, a Rembrandt, and a copy of the Bill of Rights. He advises any victim of an instrument theft to file a police report immediately, and to notify the local dealers, repairers, and pawn shops quickly through a flier or social media. “You want to get the word out as quickly as possible because when the thief tries to monetize the instrument, that’s when it’s recovered,” says Wittman.
“Many times it’s an addict looking for the next fix. It’s not really about the instrument.”
But victims of musical-instrument theft assert that not all robberies are treated equally, and that police departments and detectives may not recognize the value—monetary or otherwise—of a high-end violin. Being proactive is essential.
A Mario Miralles cello belonging to Los Angeles Opera principal cellist John Walz was stolen from a San Diego hotel room one evening in August. “That night, I couldn’t even get the police to come out to the hotel, which was very upsetting to me,” says Walz, whose instrument is worth some $100,000. After Walz prodded the dispatcher, the police arrived early the next morning. He filed a report and a $1,000 reward was posted.
Two days later, before any investigation could play out, Walz’ cello was reportedly found under some bushes on a downtown San Diego street corner. He received a message on Facebook from a local television station. “I see this message from someone at Channel 10 News in San Diego saying, ‘A woman has your cello in her living room.’ And I literally let out a scream.”
Walz credits the recovery to a Facebook post, which received more than 3,000 shares, and inspired other news reports. In a phone call with Strings, Ken Impellizeri, detective sergeant of the San Diego Police Department stated that he “sent a team of detectives out at 6 am” and Walz did not seem upset by the response time. Impellizeri added that the story of the cello’s finder, a local guitarist, “seems a little fishy,” and his department is now focused on forensic evidence from the hotel room. “We’ve been looking into it. We believe the person who turned it in was somehow involved.”
But for every question about priorities and tactics, there are cases like that of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond, whose 1715 “Lipiński” Stradivari, then valued at about $6 million, was stolen when he was attacked following a concert in 2014.
“One of the key things, if not the key element here, was almost a matter of chance,” says Almond. “Ed Flynn, the police chief at the time, and who just retired last year, was a huge symphony fan. He went a lot, and I had met him many times. He knew a lot about the violin, and we’d had a few beers together.”
That night, after a series of calls, an orchestra board member reached Flynn, who immediately understood the significance of the crime. “He saw it almost as a matter of civic pride,” says Almond. “Within about five minutes, that whole scene in that parking lot turned into an anthill of activity. There were cars everywhere and forensics guys showing up. The next day he had all of these homicide detectives on it. He really took a risk because it could have been nothing and instead he treated it as what it was.”
Almond also credits FBI special agent David Bass, a member of the Art Crime Team, who happened to live in Milwaukee. The FBI conducted its investigation and the police department worked with Taser International to trace identity of the owners of the weapon used in the attack; two were charged and one is still serving jail time (a documentary film about the case is due out in late 2018).
“The ‘Lipiński’ case was an example of a very common phenomena,” says Bass, “and that is simply, when the initial call comes in regarding a high-value cultural object, such as a Stradivari violin, for your average police officer, that’s not part of their world. They understand cars, they understand that jewelry can be very expensive. When you show them a painting or a musical instrument, most of those officers are going to have no idea what they’re dealing with.”
“While there is always a risk of damage or destruction in the course of a theft, criminals also have an interest in keeping a violin safe in order to maximize its value.”
A long with the FBI’s Art Crime Team, which has some 20 agents dedicated to stolen art objects that are worth more than $5,000, there are several international organizations and detective agencies on the beat. They include the Art Loss Register, Art Recovery International, and Interpol, which manage stolen-art databases that provide a vital resource for law enforcement.
The London-based Art Loss Register (ALR) registers some 5,000 stolen and missing instruments and related items—stringed instruments make up the majority. Each year it conducts some 10,000 musical-instrument searches on behalf of auction houses, police, dealers, and collectors. Katya Hills, a client development manager at ALR, advises musicians to photograph the unique features of their instruments.
“ALR identifies instruments by means of the serial number, label, the grain of wood and its striations, the outline of the instrument, characteristic markings and inscriptions, and other unique features,” Hills writes in an email. “Our chances of identifying an instrument are greatly improved when they are described by the registrant in as much detail as possible” and are accompanied by a high-quality image.
Other theft-prevention techniques include concealing a GPS tracking device in an instrument case (though a thief may simply abandon the case) or using a case that doesn’t call attention to its contents.
While there is always a risk of damage or destruction in the course of a theft, criminals also have an interest in keeping a violin safe in order to maximize its value. Perhaps more common is the act of removing or switching a label to conceal the instrument’s identity. “Auction houses and dealers are aware of this,” says Hills. “They would usually verify the authenticity of any instrument’s label before attributing it to a certain maker.”
Last December, a violin and viola belonging to members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra were swiped from a backstage room of the RSNO Centre in Glasgow. The viola’s owner, Fiona West, 70, says that when police recovered the instrument, “there was a wee bit of damage—a couple of scratches,” because the thief had not properly packed it up.
But the more remarkable aspect of West’s tale concerns the investigation. The thief, who scouted out the facility beforehand, was quickly identified through CCTV footage. But because the incident occurred just before the New Year’s holiday—and Glasgow’s police were evidently running on a skeletal staff—things moved slowly. West says her husband, a retired English horn player, took some initiative (perhaps too much initiative), and spied for several days on a local pawn shop. “It’s a very dodgy shop in Glasgow, which sells firearms and musical instruments,” she says.
West says that when the shop’s owners denied knowledge of the instruments’ whereabouts, the police “turned the screws” and both were recovered. “My husband was actually instrumental in kicking everyone in the backside and saying, ‘Get a move on,’ and in doing his own work as well.”
It’s not uncommon for theft victims to know little about the recovery process of their prized instruments. Min Kym, a violinist whose 1696 Stradivari was stolen at a sandwich bar in London’s Euston Station in 2010, remembers the three-year investigation that drew global news headlines.
“There was a tremendous sense of distrust between the families that actually still had the violin and the police,” says Kym, who later wrote a book about the experience, called Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung. “There were times when they were so close to recovering it, they could almost pinpoint the location of the violin, but they just couldn’t pinpoint which bit of land it was buried in. To have to walk away was incredibly hard for
the police and they didn’t actually tell me at the time that that was happening.”
One key publicity element in the case was a segment on Crimewatch, a popular BBC television show. “A lot of criminals actually watch Crimewatch, just to see if they’re hot on their trail or not,” she says.
Though the ordeal left Kym severely depressed for a period, the three-year disappearance was not especially long. Consider the “Davidoff-Morini” Stradivari, which was stolen from a New York City apartment in 1995 and is currently the only musical instrument on the FBI’s Top 10 Art Crimes list. A $100,000 reward awaits the finder. Says FBI agent Bass, “A lot of times these things do show up but they take years and years because someone might have to die or it might have to change hands a couple of times.”
Kym is upbeat in our phone conversation but adds a slightly fatalistic note: “I do believe to my absolute core that anyone who has a valuable instrument will be guarding it with their life. Sometimes the unexpected does happen.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Strings magazine.