Lessons from the Great Strad Robbery

As anyone who’s picked up a newspaper in the last few days probably knows, the Stradivarius on loan to Frank Almond, my orchestra’s concertmaster, was recovered last week and the alleged thieves detained by police:

Salah Salahadyn, 41, and Universal Knowledge Allah, 36, arrested this week, are each charged with robbery, as party to a crime. Allah also faces a charge of possessing marijuana. A woman who police say drove the getaway minivan has not yet been charged

…According to the criminal complaint, Salahadyn, also known as Salah Jones, had asked Allah, who has a concealed-weapons permit, to purchase a Taser stun gun for him last summer. Only permit holders may possess a Taser in Wisconsin. Allah apparently stored the weapon in a safe at the barbershop where he works until Salahadyn asked for it last month

After the robbery, a customer at Allah’s barbershop on N. King Drive heard him and other customers talking on Feb. 1 about the violin robbery. The tipster said that after his haircut Allah asked him for a ride home. During the ride, Allah mentioned that Salahadyn had “used the electric, not the heat,” referring to using the Taser during the robbery

Another unnamed informant told police that Salahadyn was fascinated with stealing high-end art and described snatching a Stradivarius from a musician as his “dream theft.

The next day, that person shared the information with a police officer he knew. Investigators, with the help of the FBI, already had traced the sale of the Taser to Allah through tiny, unique bits of confetti emitted by the weapon.

The tipster told police Allah didn’t seem concerned about police tracing the Taser, because he was planning to tell police the stun gun had been stolen from him.

In short, this was not a very well-executed crime, considered as a whole – which is the case with most crime, of course. The surprise, and relief, is that it wasn’t the kind of flawless theft that seemed in keeping with this violin’s long and remarkable history.

The good news for the rest of us, aside from getting to hear the instrument again, is that the system worked almost exactly as it should have. The thieves were identified within days, the instrument wasn’t fenced to some ethics-deficient collector, and it was recovered, undamaged, very quickly. In a sense, there really are no lessons to be learned from this very strange episode.

No doubt orchestras will want to re-examine their own security procedures and, in particular, look at what they can do to make musicians more secure around the hall. Insurance companies are likely already having staff meetings about their requirements for how instruments they insure are handled by their owners. Those with valuable instruments may be re-thinking to what extent they make public their ownership.

But it seems very unlikely to me that this incident will lead to a wholesale withdrawal of great old Italian instruments from the concert stage. If anything, the quick resolution and recovery of the Strad has made clear to anyone contemplating a Great Strad Robbery II that it’s a hard crime to pull off successfully, much less benefit from financially. Thanks are very much due to the Milwaukee Police Department for helping to keep that the case.

Update: a more pessimistic take on the future of violin thefts appeared today in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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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