Like everyone else, I was amazed to read about the recovery of the Ames Stradivarius last week, and the poignant reflections from Roman Totenberg’s daughter Nina, the noted journalist. For me the story had a certain obvious resonance; I remembered the surreal feeling when I received a phone call informing me the Lipinski Strad had been found only nine days after my ordeal began. Imagine waiting 35 years, and finding out the culprit was some nitwit you suspected all along. And that the violin just sat there in a locked case for 4 years after the nitwit’s death until someone decided to take a closer look.
After reading some of the truly sub-literate comments on that NPR page, I thought it might be worthwhile to address certain myths that seem to surface periodically regarding the theft (and recovery) of high-end stringed instruments. Before my own saga, I felt I was fairly well-informed in this area, and considered it due diligence to keep current on the subject. But I’ve also been lucky enough to have the assistance of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, and my knowledge base has broadened considerably. Happily, it turns out that some of the same crowd from my case assisted with the Ames recovery, and I’m sure the Totenbergs are as grateful as I was.
This theft took place in 1980, well before the Art Crime Team or today’s instant mass communication. Even in previous decades, it was still pretty rare to hear about a Strad that disappeared, although if one was stolen deliberately it would often be gone for quite awhile. The internet changed all that, which is a major reason that nowadays these instruments are rarely stolen intentionally. The other reason (obviously related) is that if you do steal one (intentionally or not), there’s literally no market for it. Further, they aren’t “stolen to order”; there’s no Dr. Evil sitting someplace with a fluffy cat in his lap wondering how he can steal the next Stradivarius for his personal use. To my knowledge that’s never happened, and there is no evidence to support that concept.
What typically happens is that these instruments disappear accidentally or almost randomly (or are stolen the same way). Someone leaves it in a taxi, or looks away for a moment in a train station, or steals it off a porch (remember this?). Whoever happens to find it (or take it) either has a huge problem because everyone’s looking for it, or they figure it out and turn it in (or turn themselves in). In this case the perpetrator appears to be deceased, and apparently no charges will be filed. As for earlier efforts by law enforcement, it is sad but true that there was seemingly not enough hard evidence to execute a search warrant on Mr. Johnson over all those years. I suspect he was most likely uncooperative with any investigation, and the options for the authorities are few under those circumstances. In addition, what was undoubtedly a spectacular violin bow by Francois Tourte was not recovered with the Ames violin. It would probably be worth well into six figures by now, and its fate remains unknown.
Until last week I was only aware of three cases in the last 40 years in which a Stradivarius had been deliberately stolen but had not yet been recovered. Thankfully (but tragically), now there are two- the 1714 Le Maurien Stradivari, stolen in New York in 2002, and the Davidoff-Morini Stradivari, stolen in 1995 from the apartment of the eminent violinist Erica Morini. There are similarities between these two thefts, with the instruments taken quietly, then evaporating without much of a trace. According to FBI records, my own case remains the only targeted theft of a specific high-end instrument involving an armed robbery. I hope it stays that way.
Anyone with information about either the Tourte bow or either Stradivari violin above is asked to contact the New York office of the FBI at 212-384-5000 and ask for agent Christopher McKeogh.
Photo courtesy NPR/Totenberg family