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Lipinski Stradivarius
The Lipinski Strad (Frank Almond)

Recently, the Minnesota Orchestra’s musicians and management resolved a long standing dispute partly fueled by the board’s insistence on cutting the players’ salaries. The board was pushing for a 35% giveback. The final agreement reduces the average musician’s salary from $135,000 to $118,000.

Let’s put that pay scale in perspective. The basic tool of an orchestra musician’s trade is his or her instrument. Today, the cost of fine string instruments can easily run into six to seven figures.

A few years back, WKSU arts reporter Vivian Goodman and I wrote about this problem in Instrument Unaffordable.

Part of the reason for the astronomical price tags: collectors. In recent decades, instruments have joined fine art as investment vehicles for the wealthy, driving the price of historical string instruments to record levels. The one bright spot has been the generosity of some museums and music-loving collectors in allowing noted artists – and, sometimes, promising students – to use instruments from their collections.

At 10:20pm last Monday evening (27 January), Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond left the auditorium at Wisconsin Lutheran College. He’d just finished playing Olivier Messiaen’s powerful Quartet for the End of Time, and had carefully wrapped the violin to protect it from Milwaukee’s subzero cold.

As he walked to his car, someone approached him. An instant later, Almond was on the ground, shot with a stun gun. His assailant snatched the rare 1715 Stradivarius Almond had been playing minutes before, then jumped into a waiting dark-red minivan and sped away.

Violins made by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) – "Strads" – are prized for their distinctive tone quality.

The Lipinski Strad, formerly owned by 19th century virtuoso Karol Lipinski, and earlier by 18th century violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini, was on long term loan to Almond. Its current owners remain anonymous, but are described as having "strong ties to Milwaukee." Almond had had use of the instrument since 2008. At that time its value was estimated at around $3.5 million. Today it’s valued at around $6 million.

This is hardly the first time that a Strad has been stolen. In fact, of the 540 known to have survived, at least 19 are currently missing.

Some historians have speculated that the "Red Mendelssohn," the inspiration for the 1998 cinematic tale The Red Violin, was stolen shortly after its creation in 1720. It didn’t resurface until one of composer Felix Mendelssohn’s heirs purchased it in Berlin in the 1930s. Elizabeth Pitcairn now plays that violin.

The famed Joshua Bell also uses an instrument that once was "hot." It vanished from Bronislaw Huberman’s Carnegie Hall dressing room in 1936. Huberman never got it back.

Finally, on his deathbed, a minor New York session musician confessed to the theft. For nearly five decades, Julian Altman had been playing Huberman’s Gibson Strad in pickup gigs. He’d smeared it with black shoe polish to disguise it.

Altman had known better than to try to "fence" such a high-profile instrument. The crook who stole Min-Jin Kym’s Strad in a London train station in 2010 wasn’t as canny. Last year (2013), he tried to peddle it for £100. He was promptly arrested.

The Milwaukee theft is particularly unsettling because of the nature of the crime. The violence of the attack – Almond was left lying in the parking lot – has many in the music world rattled.

Furthermore, because it’s effectively impossible to sell such an instrument on the black market, some are wondering whether – as with Huberman’s violin in 1936 – an unscrupulous musician might be behind the theft.

Although the Lipinski Strad was insured, there’s also concern over what effect this loss may have on other collectors’ willingness to lend their instruments to working musicians.

On Friday, an unknown benefactor posted a $100,000 reward for information leading to the return of the instrument. The FBI and Interpol are both on the case, but if you have any knowledge of the attack, or can help identify the escape vehicle, you can call the Milwaukee Police at 414 935-7360. You can also contact the Milwaukee Symphony anonymously at 414 226-7838.

Further Information:

Stradivarius Stolen at The Guardian

Reward Announced at Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Frank Almond on the Lipinski Strad at All Things Strings

Stradivarius Violins from The Violin Site

A Violin’s Life: Music for the ‘Lipinski’ Stradivari, CD by Frank Almond at Arkivmusic

Disclaimer: WKSU receives no financial advantage from your use of any vendor(s) cited in this message. Recordings are available from a variety of sources, both local and online. Links are provided for your information and convenience. They don’t signify an endorsement.

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