What the Great Strad Robbery means for the future

Most readers of this blog have already heard of the events of last Monday here in Milwaukee. If you haven’t, the New York Times has a good summary:

It should have been one of those nights musicians live for. Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for nearly two decades, had just closed a chamber concert in his own “Frankly Music” series with Messiaen’s hushed, eerily intense “Quartet for the End of Time.” Mr. Almond drew the graceful, ringing high notes of the finale from his prized 1715 Stradivarius violin, producing a tone so intensely focused that the audience in the Wisconsin Lutheran College’s 388-seat auditorium sat in awed silence for 20 seconds before applauding.

But the glow of the moment evaporated quickly, once Mr. Almond, 49, stepped into the college art center’s parking lot at 10:20 p.m. Monday, his violin carefully swaddled against the subzero temperatures and minus-25-degree wind chill. And as he neared his car, a figure stepped up to him and shot him with a stun gun.

It happened in a matter of seconds: Mr. Almond dropped the violin, the attacker scooped it up and jumped into a late 1980s or early ’90s maroon or burgundy minivan, where an accomplice was waiting to speed away. Edward A. Flynn, the Milwaukee police chief, said late Thursday afternoon that Mr. Almond had described the thieves as a man and a woman. Chief Flynn has given the value of the violin as “the high seven figures.” The police said earlier that the violin’s empty case had been found several miles from the hall.

Our management has spent a lot of time and energy over the past few days dealing with this situation, beginning with the initial contact with the police late Monday night. Every day since, we’ve had a briefing from Mark Niehaus, our CEO (and former principal trumpet) and Susan Loris, our VP for Marketing & Communications, about what’s been happening and what they and the police would like us to say (and not say) about the situation. They have provided a model of how communications with the orchestra should be done in a crisis like this.

One of the things we’ve been encouraged not to do is to speculate about the crime itself, so I’ll refrain from doing that. But I think it is worth looking ahead and wondering just what effect this might have on our business in the future.

The police have been very clear that they believe that the instrument was the motivation for the crime:

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said the violin was valued in the “high seven figures,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Investigators believe the instrument, known in musical circles as the “Lipinski” Stradivarius, was the primary target, the chief said.

“The artistic heritage of Milwaukee was assaulted and robbed last night,” Flynn told reporters.

This appears to be the first time ever that a great old Italian instrument has been specifically targeted and stolen by force. Of course there have been many other thefts of great string instruments over the years, but almost always they seem to have been crimes of opportunity. The police clearly believe that this was planned.

Of course, as has also been pointed out in the press, the market for stolen Strads is very, very limited; in fact, it had been thought by most to be essentially non-existent. Even more than fine art such as Old Master paintings, the value of great old string instruments is largely dependent on their provenance. Steal the instrument and break the chain of provenance, and the instrument becomes either obviously stolen (“That’s not a Smithoni!”) or worth far, far less than its value on the legitimate market. It’s that fact, and not the difficulty of actually stealing an instrument, that most likely has deterred such crimes in the past.

Like 9/11, this was a crime that no one really imagined could happen until it did. So those who own or play comparable instruments – and those that insure them –  are probably doing some serious thinking about their future plans. For example, it was hardly a secret that our concertmaster played on a great old Italian instrument – but it’s not closely-guarded information that some soloists and chamber musicians (and a very few lucky orchestra musicians) do so as well. And it would be a shame if that were to change; there’s no question that, just as the history and provenance of great music is of interest to audiences, the history of the instruments used to perform that music can also captivate audiences. I know it mattered to our audiences that Frank played a Strad; the direct connection to history is part of what makes our art form so compelling.

But I’ll bet how such instruments are used and publicized will change regardless. The idea that great and valuable instruments can be used by working musicians, that such use can be generally known and even publicized, and that those instruments can also be as well-protected as Old Master paintings is a fantasy. Frank was every bit as careful of the instrument as anyone could expect, as this article makes clear. But a working instrument is going to be out in the world. No musician can be expected to travel with an armed guard or have the instrument transported by armored truck. And even armed guards and armored trucks are successfully attacked on occasion.

At the end of the day, the real deterrent to a crime like this will have to remain the difficulty of doing anything profitable with the stolen property, as well as the chance of being caught and punished. Let’s hope that’s what happens to the perpetrators in this case. It would be a real loss for orchestras and for audiences if insurance companies decided – as they easily could – that there was simply too much financial exposure in having these instruments guarded only by string players. This was a crime that – like 9/11, albeit in a very different way – could very easily cause an overreaction that could do significant damage by itself. Having to go through machines that virtually strip-search air passengers is bad enough, but I’d hate to never again hear a Strad or del Gesù played in concert.

Ironically, Frank himself may have had the last word on just how strange all this is almost 15 years ago in a letter to the New York Times:

As a violinist who regularly plays on old Italian instruments (currently the ”Dushkin” Stradivari, 1701), I read David Schoenbaum’s article with great interest [”Trauma and Tragedy Follow Many a Fine Fiddle,” Aug. 22]. I would readily agree that in a discussion involving the history of old violins, the truth is usually stranger than anything any writer could come up with.

But although I was fascinated by tales of Strads washing up on the beach and hidden East-bloc collections, it seems to me that contemporary life with these things is equally bizarre. I’ve known people who have left violins in parking lots, taxis, restaurants and hair salons. One person loaded up his car and then proceeded to back over his cello, which he had somehow forgotten about. And of course many airlines regularly provide a sense of adventure for us, especially flight attendants who really don’t believe what your carry-on is, and would much rather check it for you.

I was also intrigued by Mr. Schoenbaum’s descriptions of the violin as a tool of seduction. Notwithstanding Paganini’s notoriety, based on my own comprehensive and painstaking research, I can say with assurance that the violin has lost some of its mystical charm in this area. If attracting women is your primary goal, the electric guitar seems to be much more efficient. And much cheaper than buying a Stradivari.




About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • $5 million violin and he doesn’t even write his own songs. Priorities askew indeed. Nothing wrong with being in a cover band/symphony orchestra, which are the same thing. 5 mil is instrument fetishism.

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