Stolen Stradivarius violin worth $5M displayed in Milwaukee

Three people are under arrest in connection with the theft of a rare Stradivarius violin.
February 6, 2014 3:17:46 PM PST
A stolen Stradivarius violin was recovered by Milwaukee police the week after it was taken by force from Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond.

PHOTOS: Stolen Stradivarius violin

Three people are under arrest. Charges have yet to be filed.

"There are good days, and there are bad days. This is a good day," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.

Almond was walking to his car with the violin, which was on loan, after performing at the Wisconsin Lutheran College on January 27 when he was jumped by a man with a stun gun. He fell the ground and the 300-year-old Stradivarius violin valued at $5 million was stolen. The offender got into a waiting vehicle and sped off, police said.

Almond, who teaches at Northwestern University, was not seriously hurt.

The brazen theft raised questions- any would-be buyers would know the rare violin was stolen.

A $100,000 reward was offered for the instrument's safe return. That led to a tip, which led to the arrests of two men, ages 41 and 36, and a woman, 32. They have not yet been identified or charged. Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn wouldn't release details on how police tracked the three down, but said there is physical evidence linking them to the theft and stun gun.

The violin was found hidden in a suitcase in an attic, he said.

"Folks who stole it knew it was highly valuable, didn't do anything to injure its value. They didn't have a violin case, but they had a suitcase. And they treated it gingerly. That's why to our untrained eyes, it appears to us, undamaged," Chief Flynn said.

Chief Flynn said it appeared the three were working on their own and not on the behalf of a larger art-theft ring. One suspect has a history, he said.

"At this point it appears we had a local criminal who very much had an interest in art theft and was smart enough to identify this valuable interest," Chief Flynn said.

The violin is known as the"Lipinski" Stradivarius. Its previous owners include virtuoso Giuseppe Tartini, who was known for his "Devil's Trill" Sonata, and Polish violinist Karol Lipinski.

It was passed down through generations, eventually landing with the heirs of Estonian violinist Evi Liivak, according to Stefan Hersh, a Chicago-based violin curator who helped restore it to playing condition after it was removed from storage in a bank vault in 2008. The current owner's name has not been revealed publicly.

Hersh, a friend of Almond's, said he used to watch how carefully Almond would care for the violin. While some musicians see their instruments as objects or tools, Almond understood the historical significance of the Lipinski, Hersh said.

"He had a special case made for it, he kept it highly protected in his car, he never let it out of his sight," Hersh said. "As a performer nothing shakes him, but after the theft he was highly shaken. I've never known him like that."

Hersh said Almond had scars on his wrist and chest from the stun gun but otherwise wasn't seriously hurt.

Hersh said he couldn't sleep after he heard about the theft. He was worried the violin would be damaged, but the more he thought about it the more he suspected the thieves would take pains to protect their spoils.

"You'd have to think someone who thought this through with such meticulous planning would take good care of it," he said.

Estimates vary for the number of Stradivarius violins that still exist, said Lisbeth Butler, the secretary of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Most experts believe that 600 to 650 remain, she said.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn says tips from the public and the ability to track the stun gun helped police identify suspects.

Flynn said Thursday that officers worked with the maker of the stun gun to identify one suspect. He says a tip led officers to another suspect, who has a previous art theft conviction.

Flynn says one suspect led officers to the home where the violin was found in a suitcase in the attic. He says the homeowner was an acquaintance of the suspect and doesn't seem to have known what was in the suitcase.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett learned on Thursday that he had received a haircut from one of the suspects in the theft of the violin. The man worked at a Milwaukee barber shop.

Barrett says he was walking through the neighborhood, stopped into the shop to say hello and was asked if he wanted a haircut. He said yes.

The mayor said Thursday that after the suspect was arrested, his staff discovered a picture of him in the barber's chair on the suspect's Facebook page.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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