This idea of stealing a Stradivarius violin known as the Lipinski—299 years old, still eminently playable, and valued at somewhere between $5 and $6 million—did not just fall from the sky. Police say Salahadyn had been thinking of stealing a Stradivarius for at least a decade, ultimately setting his sights on the Lipinski because of the Milwaukee connection. He knew the patterns of his target, the routine of where he worked, where he parked, where he shopped, what car he drove, the name of his wife, all chilling because of the stalker aspect. According to police, Salahadyn went to one of his concerts, noting, among other details, that he was the only African-American there. He knew the history of what he was after, so much so that you could say he had become obsessed with it. This was no ordinary object of desire.
If you look at it another way, there was something dangerous and almost deranged about it, the kind of crime Abbott and Costello might plan, after consultation with Cheech and Chong and Martin and Lewis. There were also repercussions that could have been catastrophic far beyond the fate of a multi-million-dollar violin.
A Taser was used on Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond as he was about to get into his car in a parking lot in subzero temperatures after a performance on January 27. Tasers in very rare instances have caused fatal heart attacks. In falling to the ground, the 50-year-old Almond could have cracked his head open on the patchy ice that had built up as a result of the frigid winter.
The Taser did immobilize Almond just long enough for someone to grab the violin case slung over his left shoulder. In that respect the crime went off just the way Salahadyn had allegedly dreamed of in prison—the ease of stealing a Stradivarius simply by grabbing it from an unsuspecting classical musician.
But there are two parts to an art heist such as this—stealing the object and then having a plan as to what to do with it afterward. It was in this second area that the scheme seemed stunted.
The getaway vehicle was a somewhat bruised minivan, sticking out like a phosphorescent bulb because of its maroon color. Police say its driver was not some trained professional but the mother of three of Salahadyn’s children.
It did not help that the Taser used on Almond shot out dozens of confetti-size identification tags, thereby enabling the F.B.I. to track down where the Taser had been purchased online and the owner of record.
It also did not help that the owner, the sublimely named Universal Knowledge Allah, or Uni to his friends, an affable barber and Tupperware consultant hoping to crack the middle-age-housewife party market, blabbed about details of the robbery (he was not at the scene that night) to a customer, who coughed him up to the police. It did not help when a former inmate who years before had been in the same Wisconsin prison as Salahadyn, sniffing a reward for the return of the violin, said in an e-mail to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra that Salahadyn had talked in prison about stealing a Stradivarius. A $100,000 reward was offered, and in high-end thefts of this nature, it sometimes has the same effect as the perfect worm, with fishes jumping all over themselves to the top to get it.
It really did not help that unlike hubcaps, for example, or even a python, you can’t just walk up to someone in the street and say you know where you can get a really good deal on a stolen $6 million violin. It really really did not help that the Stradivarius happened to be stolen in perhaps the one place in America where the police chief didn’t think it was a form of Streptococcus and, fully cognizant of its cultural significance, decided to send in “the cavalry.”
The cavalry won.
In July the 37-year-old Allah, after admitting to his role in the theft, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Salahadyn is scheduled to appear in court on October 3. According to Milwaukee Police detective Billy Ball, one of the key investigators on the case, the district attorney’s office agreed after his arrest in February to reduce the charge against him from armed robbery to robbery. In return Salahadyn agreed to lead authorities to the violin and also plead guilty, according to Ball.
Several scheduled hearings were postponed, one in July, when Salahadyn’s attorney withdrew as counsel, and the most recent in early September, when, eight months into the case, Salahadyn’s new attorney asked for a motion hearing.
As of mid-September, Salahadyn had still not filed any plea, although claiming innocence appears somewhat difficult for him because of a lengthy interview with Vice News in which he did a seemingly failproof job of incriminating himself. During the interview, which he gave without the knowledge of counsel, he admitted to being involved in the robbery of the violin and in the physical possession of it. He claimed that he had been coerced by an Asian crime syndicate that he had made contact with and performed various activities for over the years; in this case he said they wanted him to take the Lipinski to Chicago, presumably for eventual transport to somewhere else. But he said he had changed his mind because he could not bear for the priceless instrument to leave its rightful home of Milwaukee.
Federal and local law-enforcement authorities describe Salahadyn’s claims as ludicrous, ridiculous, and pretty much any other likewise description. Dave Bass, who is a special agent on the F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team and who works in the bureau’s Milwaukee Field Division, where the case was assigned, says there is absolutely no evidence that an Asian syndicate was behind this. He gives several reasons, the most cogent being: Why would any sophisticated crime organization trust a local thief from Milwaukee, particularly one with terrible judgment?
Bass believes the motive may have been the $100,000 reward that was being offered by private sources. It is not uncommon in art heists for someone to steal an object, send in “mules” to help “find” it, and then reap reward money, since owners are often frantic to get their property back with no questions asked. So perhaps the intent was to let the investigation die down, make sure no specific names had surfaced, and then aid in the recovery in return for at least a portion of the reward. The flaw in this scenario, as Bass notes, is that the money is not usually released unless there is a conviction.
Or it simply could have been what Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn hypothesized: “We can’t ever dismiss the nitwit factor.”
Whatever the motive, it is safe to say that neither Salahadyn nor Allah could have remotely imagined the tsunami that was about to hit them. Nor could the Lipinski, whose nearly three-century journey up until the moment of the robbery had already been the musical equivalent of the cat with nine lives.
On April 28, 2008, Frank Almond received a curious e-mail. The writer, who still refuses to be publicly identified, claimed something improbable. She or he said that he or she was in the process of inheriting a Stradivarius violin known as the Lipinski. Two or three times a year, Almond got e-mails similar to this, about the discovery of a Stradivarius. It was typical for someone who had reached Almond’s stature: two degrees from Juilliard and the Charles and Marie Caestecker Concertmaster Chair at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He’s also the founder of a much-acclaimed chamber series called Frankly Music and a guest concertmaster appearing with symphonies across the globe.
Since around 1666, when the singular genius Antonio Stradivari began making his own violins in Cremona, Italy, it is not unreasonable to assume that everyone in history has at one time or another come to believe that the violin shoved into the corner of the attic is in fact a Stradivarius when it was probably purchased at a Henny Youngman concert.
Not much is known about Stradivari except that he was a workaholic up until his death, in 1737. (The exact date of his birth has been pegged to sometime around 1644.) For centuries classical musicians and scholars and scientists have tried to pinpoint the exact reason that his instruments are still believed to be the best ever produced, an unequaled balance of upper partials and lower partials, bright and joyful at times and painfully beautiful at others. Trying to account for the uniqueness of the Stradivarius is something of a growth area unto itself. Some say it was the varnish (no proof). Some say it was because of wood that was indigenous to the Cremona region and is now extinct (no proof). Stefan Hersh, a leading expert in the field of rare string instruments, sums it up best when he says, “What certainly must be true is that Stradivari had to have a great intuitive feel for acoustics, astonishing skill as a carver, and a truly dazzling imagination to create the works he did.”
Many of those who have played a Stradivarius, whether it’s a violin or viola or cello, ascribe human characteristics to it. They talk about its soul and its moods. It is no accident that many of them, including the Lipinski, are named after past owners, in this particular instance noted 19th-century Polish violinist Karol Lipi´nski. You don’t simply repair a Stradivarius; you “stabilize” it. If you follow that line, the instrument can also be bratty, temperamental, imperious if it doesn’t trust you, and, like a runaway, prone to disappearance.
In past years they have reportedly been left in the trunk of a New York taxi, a Newark cab, a train in Switzerland, on a porch in Los Angeles, the seat of a Porsche, and the side of the freeway, once again in Los Angeles, after it flew off the top of a moving car, according to one account. Some were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in World War II. Another had been camouflaged in sticky black shoe polish, and it was only on the precipice of death that the person playing it admitted it had been stolen 49 years earlier. Another was stolen from its owner in New York as she was critically ill and 19 years later has still not been recovered. Yet another was stolen from a sandwich shop at a London train station when the violinist using it had become distracted with her cell phone.
The Stradivarius has also been accused of fraud. The French being the French, whose role in the world seems to be to debunk everything that isn’t French, have instigated research studies, one in which maestro violin soloists played a variety of instruments and basically could not distinguish between a Stradivarius and a much newer violin.
The Stradivarius has not only endured but increased exponentially in value. In 2011 the Lady Blunt, in excellent condition and rarely played, was sold for nearly $16 million to raise funds for Japan earthquake relief. Auction-house asking prices have also gone up astronomically. In June of this year the minimum bid at Sotheby’s for a Stradivarius viola, very rare because so few were produced, was $45 million. (It did not sell.)
The Hill brothers, owners of a violin-making firm in London and believed to have been the leading experts on the Stradivarius, said in their 1902 volume that Stradivari produced a total of 1,116 instruments, the preponderance of which were violins. The Hill brothers believed that 540 violins, 50 cellos, and 12 violas could be accounted for, one of those violins being the Lipinski.
The Lipinski’s initial owner, Giuseppe Tartini, composer of the famous “Devil’s Trill” sonata, said the inspiration had come to him from a dream in which he handed the violin to the Devil to see what he might do with it. The Devil was good.
The owner up until 2008 was classical pianist Richard Anschuetz. The instrument had originally been purchased in 1962 for $19,000 by Anschuetz’s mother for his wife, concert violinist Evi Liivak. The couple had met in Nuremberg, where Anschuetz was an American war-crimes-tribunal translator and Liivak a refugee from Estonia whose father had been killed by the Gestapo. They performed all over the world together.
As a pianist, Anschuetz had no personal use for the Lipinski after his wife died, in 1996. The natural inclination would have been to sell it, particularly since Stradivarius instruments were booming in price. But he still loved her so much that he could not bear to part with it. So he kept it in his New York apartment and went about his business with extreme privacy, playing the piano into his 90s and finding solace in the works of Indian philosopher and yogi Sri Aurobindo.
Anschuetz eventually moved to Milwaukee to be closer to relatives after becoming ill. (He died in 2008.) The Lipinski came as well and was placed in a bank vault downtown. It had not been played for at least 12 years.
As Almond continued to read the e-mail, it became apparent that the person writing it was credible. There were too many meticulous details, like the violin receiving small repairs and new strings at Jacques Français Rare Violins, in New York, and being appraised at some point by Christie’s.
There was some question as to whether the Lipinski was ready to come in from the cold. But the writer of the e-mail wanted to meet with Almond and seek his advice. He was asked to keep the information confidential.
They ultimately met at the bank vault with Stefan Hersh, brought in because of his expertise. Almond was excited, but he remembers that Hersh, whose family had been in the violin business for more than 75 years, was beside himself. He knew the lineage of the Stradivarius perhaps as well as anyone in the world. The Lipinski had been made during Stradivari’s so-called golden period. This could be a historic moment.
A disinterested bank employee carried the case into a nondescript viewing room. It was opened.
Even in the unflattering fluorescent light, it was immediately clear that this was an authentic 1715 Stradivarius. The bridge was down. There was an open seam. But with restoration it could be playable again; under the circumstances it was in remarkably good condition.
The owner’s family, humble, with a lineage of public service in Milwaukee, could have kept it or sold it for somewhere around $2.5 million. But they admirably eschewed personal gain and collector vanity. Rather than force the Lipinski into early retirement at the age of 293, they decided its life should actively continue. They lent it to Almond with virtually no conditions.
The problem with a Stradivarius is that once you decide to play one you actually have to play one.
The Lipinski was tough and demanding. Almond found out right away that “it maximizes your strengths and really, really illuminates your weaknesses. There is no place to hide anymore.” The most difficult thing was to learn how not to work so hard to get the most out of it, how to appreciate its fast response.
The more Almond played the Lipinski at concerts, the more the Lipinski began to respect him. They became comfortable with each other, then quite intimate. In a city choking on inferiority—the monolith of Chicago, 92 miles away, obscuring Milwaukee in insecure shadow—Almond was also determined to make the Lipinski a source of public pride. He gave interviews about it. He created a CD comprised of pieces composed by those who had owned it. He was obsessively careful with it, never letting it wander away. But he never thought the Lipinski would be the object of a robbery. F.B.I. special agent Bass, who has been with the Art Crime Team since its inception, said he knew of no instance of a Stradivarius being taken by force. “My initial thought [was] this was bizarre and made no sense.”