It was a little after 10PM when Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO), walked out of Wisconsin Lutheran College into the sub-zero January night. He had just finished a chamber music performance at the small school, located in the quiet suburb of Wauwatosa, and he was headed home.
As Almond opened the passenger door of his car to put his violin inside, a 41-year-old ex-con named Salah Salahadyn allegedly walked up to Almond and tased him unconscious. Almond came to just in time to see his attacker speed away in a burgundy minivan driven by a woman in a black hat. Almond's iPad was gone. As were two 19th-century bows, which were worth a combined $50,000. And so was the violin, a 1715 Stradivarius he had been playing since a wealthy benefactor loaned it to him in 2008.
It was worth $5 million.
"There is now exactly one documented case of a Strad-level violin specifically targeted for an armed robbery," Almond tells VICE News. "Lucky me."
* * *
He actually was pretty lucky.
Salahadyn, who had previously spent five years in prison for swiping a $25,000 statue from a Milwaukee art gallery in the mid-1990s and then trying to sell it back to the gallery owner, once described stealing a Strad as his "dream theft." But when he allegedly stole Almond's, it wasn't exactly the perfect score. Somehow Salahadyn had failed to realize that each time a Taser is fired, it disperses tiny ID tags imprinted with bar-coded serial numbers - kind of like guilt confetti. A phone call from police to the manufacturer of the Taser identified a 36-year-old Milwaukee barber named Universal Knowledge Allah as the man who'd bought it.
Allah (born Shaudell Johnson) planned to tell cops that the Taser had been stolen if they started asking questions, but according to court documents, he managed to implicate himself and Salahadyn before that ever happened. Four days after the robbery, Allah gave a haircut to a customer identified only as "W.D." W.D. then gave Allah a lift home. It was during this ride that Allah told W.D. all that had happened, right down to Salahadyn having "used the electric, not the heat." By that point, the robbery was big news, and a $100,000 reward had been offered by the MSO.
The following day, W.D. went to police and told them everything he knew.
Allah was quickly arrested, followed almost immediately by Salahadyn, who had neglected to dispose of two key pieces of evidence: a binder filled with magazine articles about Strads, and a note he wrote to himself reading, "Taser.com $500-$1000." Salahadyn then led investigators to an associate's home where he had stashed the stolen violin. In the attic, hidden inside a suitcase, was Almond's undamaged Stradivarius, along with Salahadyn's own ID. The alleged getaway driver, LaToya Atlas - also Salahadyn's on-again, off-again girlfriend and the mother of his child - was arrested and released without charges. Officials have thus far declined to explain why.
Famous Strads 'have been photographed from more angles than a porn star.'
Dick Ellis, the detective who founded New Scotland Yard's Art & Antiques Unit in 1989, describes the world of rare instrument theft as "a small subset of a niche area of criminality." In other words, Strads are almost never stolen, despite the fact that so many of them - like Almond's - are absurdly easy targets. And there's one overarching reason why.
There are lots of dumb things you can steal. A Stradivarius may be the dumbest.
* * *
Of the approximately 1,000 violins, violas, and cellos Antonio Stradivari made in his lifetime, the most coveted come from what is called his "golden period," which lasted from 1700 to 1725. Of these, two are considered the cream of the crop. One is the 1716 Messiah, which is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK. The other is Almond's 1715 Lipinski.
There are various theories about what makes the 450 or so surviving Stradivarius violins so sublime. Some experts have speculated it has to do with unique climate conditions experienced only during a brief time in the 17th century, which gave special acoustic properties to the wood used by Stradivari. Others believe it had something to do with the varnish, a secret formulation whose recipe disappeared when Stradivari died in 1737 at the age of 93. Still others think river fungi got into timber being floated down from the Italian Alps to Stradivari's home base of Cremona, which somehow altered the wood's cells in a magical way that has never been duplicated.
All of those theories may be total BS. Beyond dispute, however, is the fact that Stradivari's creations are a testament to a singular brand of genius, an artisan who spent his life relentlessly trying to improve upon his past work.
But Strads don't cost millions of dollars simply because they sound good. They are pieces of art. The 1721 Lady Blunt Stradivarius is worth, ounce-for-ounce, 625 times the price of gold. Next month, Sotheby's will open sealed bids for Stradivari's 1719 Macdonald viola. There are far fewer Stradivarius violas still around than there are violins; if the Macdonald realizes the estimated sale price of more than $45 million, it will be the most expensive musical instrument ever to change hands.
It's no wonder Salahadyn got ideas.
"People read these articles about a Stradivarius worth millions of dollars and think, 'Hey, if we just get 10 percent of its actual price, that's still a lot of money,'" says former FBI agent Robert K. Wittman, founder of the Bureau's Art Crime Team and author of Priceless. "The real art in an art heist isn't the stealing, it's the selling." To that end, three things are absolutely vital if you're going to get any value out of a Strad: authenticity, provenance, and proper documentation. This is where the deal tends to fall apart for a thief. A stolen Strad "might be real as rain," Wittman says, but once it's out of the rightful owner's hands, it becomes relatively worthless.
"I call high-value stolen art 'headache art' because it disrupts the everyday handling of lesser stolen art, therefore causing everyone a fucking headache."
Strads derive their value in part from the fact that their provenance is so well-documented. Every nick, bump, and scratch has been analyzed and pored over, as has the grain of the wood. Modern-day violin makers use Stradivariuses as models for their own instruments, which makes the makers intimately familiar with the violins, violas, and cellos. Famous Strads "have been photographed from more angles than a porn star," says Laurie Niles, a concert violinist and the editor-in-chief of Violinist.com. Privately run organizations like the Art Loss Register and Art Recovery International have dedicated databases focused solely on tracking stringed instruments for dealers, auction houses, collectors and buyers, police, museums, insurance companies, and anyone else with an interest in their recovery.
"Morons - low-level idiots," is how ex art thief "Turbo" Paul Hendry describes Salahadyn and Allah, who are both due back in court May 15 and face up to 15 years in prison. Hendry, who claims to have been Great Britain's most prolific trafficker of stolen art before he went straight in 2007, says most crooked dealers will handle only lesser-known pieces, which can be blended back into the legitimate market at, or close to, full price. Since most thieves know not to steal internationally recognizable items, the overall recovery rate for art and antiquities is a paltry 5 percent to 10 percent.
"Give me 100 stolen pieces worth $10,000 over one worth $1 million any day," Hendry says. "I call high-value, iconic, stolen art 'headache art' because it disrupts the everyday handling of lesser stolen art, therefore causing everyone a fucking headache."
The chances of a legitimate buyer taking a stolen Stradivarius off a thief's hands are, effectively, zero. According to Niles, a multimillion-dollar Strad without the right papers "might fetch $500" in a pawn shop. That said, there are a handful of famous Strads that have disappeared and remain missing. So where are they?
"So far I've seen absolutely no evidence that a black market for high-end instruments even exists - in contrast to paintings," Almond says. "I'm aware of exactly three great Strads that have disappeared since 1994 and have not resurfaced; that's not much of a market."
He's right. As one dealer explains, the rarer the item, the smaller the world becomes. This is one reason why Ellis believes many stolen instruments - like the Le Maurien, Colossus, and Davidoff-Morini Strads Almond mentions - could very well have been fenced for, essentially, nothing. Today they may be hiding in plain sight.
Says Ellis: "I suspect they have been sold on to students and [other people] who have no idea what they bought on the cheap."
* * *
There are only two police officers in the United States who serve as full time "art cops." One of them is Detective Don Hrycyk of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Back in the late 1980s, when Los Angeles was seeing roughly 1,000 murders a year, Hrycyk was working homicide in South Central's violent 77th Street Division. When the relentless bloodshed got to be too much, he put in for a transfer to the commercial burglary unit. Hrycyk's caseload initially included a handful of art crimes, and in 1993 that became his sole focus. Today, the 40-year veteran is in charge of the LAPD's Art Theft Detail, which currently consists of one person: Don Hrycyk.
Over the past 20 years, he has orchestrated the return of seven of eight rare violins stolen in LA. (A Luigi Mozzani 1917 model known simply as "#108" remains missing.) In his experience, there is no common MO among art thieves; Hrycyk has seen rare instruments get swept up as part of a larger haul in ordinary burglaries, snatched out of spite during domestic disputes, and stolen by everyone from highly organized crews to domestic laborers. Although he says he's encountered the odd targeted theft, the kind of advance work Salahadyn did before allegedly stealing Almond's Strad is rare.
Twice on Hrycyk's watch, high-end stringed instruments have walked away when distracted musicians left them unattended. In 2004, the $3.5 million General Kyd Stradivarius, a cello on loan from the LA Philharmonic to cellist Peter Stumpf, disappeared when he absentmindedly left it overnight on the front porch of his Los Feliz home. The following year, a 1742 Sanctus Seraphin violin, on loan from Southern California philanthropist Peter Mandell to music student Lindsay Deutsch, was snatched from the back seat of her car while she shopped at a West Hills supermarket. Both were quickly returned in exchange for rewards: $50,000 put up by an anonymous donor in the case of the General Kyd, and $10,000 put up by Deutsch's parents for the safe return of the $350,000 Sanctus Seraphin - and the $160,000 bow that was stolen with it.
Both were crimes of opportunity, and Hrycyk didn't have much doubt the cello and the violin would turn up eventually. What still disturbs him is that the crimes seem to have paid off; the thieves were never caught.
"Our feeling was that the people who 'found' these things were probably sent in as mules for the thief to get the reward," Hrycyk says.
That tactic is becoming less and less feasible. In fact, according to Hendry, stealing a Strad in hopes of collecting a reward - or ransom, as he calls it - is almost as foolish a plan as Salahadyn's was in Milwaukee.
"Rewards are a load of bullshit," Hendry says. "It used to be common for stolen art to be recovered quietly and payments made, but recent money-laundering laws in Europe and the US have made those deals harder to make. Law enforcement will not allow the private sector to recover stolen art without arrests anymore; anyone acting as a conduit knows to get a legal agreement in place before helping recovery. I have done this many times and when no agreement is forthcoming, I walk away."
"I never met a drug dealer who would be willing to trade good heroin or coke for a Stradivarius he can't do anything with."
Of course, rules are sometimes broken. In 2010, solo violinist Min-Jin Kym's 1696 Strad, worth about $2 million, was stolen while she chatted with a friend at a Pret-a-Manger in London's Euston Station. A closed-circuit camera later identified the culprits as John Maughan, a 30-year-old Irish Traveler with 46 known aliases and 123 criminal convictions to his credit, and two teenage accomplices who were too young to be named publicly. After pleading guilty, the boys were sentenced to undisclosed terms; Maugham was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison, which was reduced on appeal to 3 1/2. But the violin remained missing.
After a £30,000 reward offered by the violin's insurer failed to turn up anything conclusive, Kym was paid by her insurance company for the loss. For three years, cops chased leads all over Europe, but Maughan clammed up and the trail seemed to have gone cold. Then, last June, British Transport Police (BTP) announced that investigators had miraculously found the Strad. The BTP said nothing else, other that the violin had been located at "a house in the Midlands."
Further details were never revealed. So we asked Hendry to tell us what he knows.
The violin that became known as the "ex-Kym" Strad was auctioned for $2.3 million last December, and the public was told that a portion of the proceeds were donated to the authorities who had recovered it. But Hendry says the sale proceeds "donated" to police actually went to Maughan's associates.
"The truth is, it was handed back by fellow gypsies who had taken possession of the Strad from Maughan, the original thief," Hendry tells VICE News. "This was an illegal act under UK law, but done because there was simply no other way of recovering the Strad. It's a grey area that happens when the desire to recover the stolen artwork overrides the ability to make arrests."
Authorities' desire to recover the Strad was motivated in part by the fact that it was being used as collateral for drug deals, Hendry says. But that's an extremely unusual circumstance.
"I never met a drug dealer who would be willing to trade good heroin or coke," Wittman says, "for a Stradivarius he can't do anything with."
* * *
Musicians say each Strad has a distinct personality. Most have names, and Hrycyk believes this adds to the huge sense of loss when one gets stolen.
Almond was no exception. The day after the robbery, he addressed the media at a news conference. "It is difficult to fully articulate, but the main thing about instruments in this echelon is that your interaction with them on so many levels becomes something very similar to a primary human relationship, with all its twists and turns," he said. "For many years I have been incredibly fortunate to be passing through its life, not the other way around."
And it's not just the musicians who feel an acute loss. After the theft, a local Milwaukee music critic named Rick Walters wrote, "Hearing its rich tones has been a defining aspect of classical music in Milwaukee. As the violin's audience, we are also violated by this robbery. My reaction is some combination of outrage and grief."
According to British cultural critic Norman Lebrecht, a violinist in 1960 could expect to pay about $1,600 for "a fine 19th-century instrument," or roughly double his annual salary. Today, Lebrecht says, the ratio is 10 or 12 times average orchestral earnings.
In recent years, Stradivarius investment funds have started to appear, pushing already astronomical prices even higher. Not entirely unlike oil prices that started to rise when speculators got involved, the market for rare violins became even more distorted once Strads became an asset class. The instruments remain coveted not only because they are a finite commodity almost guaranteed to appreciate, but also because loaning one to an elite musician bestows upon the owner - whether a corporation, foundation, or private individual - a level of status that a barrel of oil never could. Plus, regular use is part of a Strad's maintenance; many believe the sound becomes more exquisite each time the instrument is played.
That's why it's important to remember that violins are instruments, says Dorit Straus, an insurance advisor for Art Recovery International and herself a professional-level violinist. That is, they are tools, not museum pieces. Yes, a Strad is a work of art and a cultural artifact - but it is meant to be played. High-value paintings or sculptures, which are rarely if ever transported, are often accompanied by specialists and guards when they are.
Two weeks after the robbery, Frank Almond played the Lipinski Stradivarius at a sold-out recital.